'Into Great Silence' is a rare cinematic experience, a film without a narrator, no one to explain or mythologise or create an unfolding mystery. There is no real story to relate here, it's without dramatic changes of pace or manipulative music to heighten the atmosphere. This film is as silent as a documentary can be, without turning the sound off. Very simply and unhurriedly, like its subject matter, it presents its findings. Philip Groning had to be patient to make this movie, it was nineteen years between his initial request and the film of monastery life being made. One is left wondering how this experience was for the monks, their every action being captured as they went about their usually solitary round of religious observances. How is it for anyone to have their private observances observed for public consumption? Groning scrupulously avoids any sense of you being voyeurs creeping in to watch forbidden things. He has an unobtrusive and patient eye, which paradoxically brings a fascinating richness and a quiet quality to his observing.
The day to day actions of thirty of so monks in the Grande Chartreuse, the head quarters of the Carthusian Order, are charted in minute detail, and you find yourself gradually adjusting your step to be in pace with its meditative rhythm. The lives these monks lead is stark, simple, and stripped bare of affectation. This is not a documentary indulging in the exotic otherness of monastic life. It's not a life without any sense of aesthetics, there is a rough hewn beauty to this rustic simplicity. I can feel it's attraction and get a sense for the spiritual values that are being made tangible, to a generally indifferent world. Though, in all of us there's a still small segment in our psyches that yearns for this ideal – to get away from a life ruled by the rampant desire for sensory distraction.
To our deeply social, sexual and individualistic society, spending time on ones own could be viewed with anxiety, if not derision. Yet, these monks have chosen to devote themselves to this life, mostly to spend their time alone in their individual cells, grouped as they are around a large communal cloister. The individual and the communal are given separated contexts within the monastery enviroment. At points during the day a monk pushing a cart bearing metal containers brings food to the cloister cells, stops by each, unlocks a small door hatch, opens it and places round food tins within it, then moves onto the next. Then there are the daily communal rituals, some called to by bell in the middle of the night. Once a week they're allowed to walk outside the monastery grounds, where they can interact and talk. On one such day some of the monks walked up into the snow covered mountains in twos, having great fun on the slopes on their makeshift skis. It left an impression that their lives, though serious in religious intent, were not entirely bereft of a sense of fun or playfulness. Perhaps the founding fathers were wise, and knew a life of such austere practice cannot be left without an emotional safety valve, opened to relieve the pressure at regular intervals. Most of their days they pray, they study, they work, they perform rituals without egotistically imposing their personality upon their devotions. No one appeared be self consciously playing up to the camera, which may be a virtue of good editing, as much as an expression of spiritual maturity.
Throughout the film there were shots of individual monks staring straight to camera for half a minute. Passive, characterful faces, full of expression, looked out at you. These seemed untroubled, but deeply human beings, self acknowledging, though interested, if not intrigued by why you the viewer were interested, if not intrigued with them. For over two hours and forty minutes I sat engrossed, a grin of sheer delight, if not envy, often appearing blissfully across my face