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Volume 19 Issue 42 | March 2 - 8, 2007

A history of silence

Documentary eavesdrop into the lives of Carthusian Monks

By Steven Snyder

We’ve already been set adrift in the silent world of the Carthusian Order of Monks when one of this documentary’s many title cards seems to sum up their existence: “Behold the silence: Allow the lord to speak one Word in us…that HE is.”

Day after day, through the weeks, seasons and years, the men who live in this remote outpost in the French Alps have devoted themselves to faithful service — both to each other and their creator. Days are filled with silent prayer and meditation, interrupted only by the ringing of the church bells, a rotating schedule of manual labor and a regiment of meals.

It is a surreal existence, and one that director Philip Groning bravely immerses himself in (he was only allowed to film this hidden world by living and working alongside the monks). From the outset, we are flies on the walls of this solitary, silent universe, and the doc’s title is an appropriate one, for silence is not the end of these men’s stories, but merely the beginning.

As we move closer to this monastic lifestyle, stepping into the auditory and sensory abyss that is their day-to-day life, unexpected details take on hyperrealistic qualities. As they gather in the great hall at night, the solitary lit candle in the middle of the room seems to shine brighter and brighter; the methodical pace of an afternoon is shattered by one member of the monastery preparing dinner, or two monks running in to ring the mid-afternoon bells.

In some ways, it seems as if “Into Great Silence” were an experiment in sensory depravation. Without the sounds of the everyday world — or the buzz of the television, the cell phone, the blackberry — each moments starts to explode with meaning. The light cascading in through the window, the slow shift from night to day, the sound of a knife cutting through lettuce — the most mundane of moments seem to take on a more profound weight in this space.

Groning alters his technique as the movie digs deeper into this silent sanctum. He positions his camera high atop the monastery’s towering arches, taking in the awesome scope of the place and challenging us to find a meaning in the space. He alternates between a standard filmic approach and an exaggerated, grainy, slow-motion technique that seems to pause scenes momentarily and call attention to a given detail, sound or landscape. As we come to feel the pulse and consistency of these monks’ daily lives, he also turns the camera on them directly — silent confrontations that seem pulled directly from an Andy Warhol experiment. Yet this is the closest these monks will ever come to offering an interview — staring silently into the camera lens — and somehow they seem more fascinating in their silence than they ever would in offering a sentence of self-reflection.

Perhaps most notable about Groning’s work is that it is nearly three hours long. For 162 minutes, our mind is lulled into the same state of tranquility — or is that awakened to the same quest for meaning — as these religious men. And at some point, we start listening for the same divine whispers that have led the members of this order to swear off speech entirely in hopes of truly hearing Him for the first time.

That said, “Into Great Silence” is not a purely voyeuristic experience, and this is no anthropological study. Rather, Groning drops us in this world as a newcomer, unfamiliar with this way of life, and allows us to experience the day-to-day routines, the pomp and ceremony, the afternoon prayers and the afternoons spent shoveling snow outside.

And with each shovelful of snow, each prayer and every sunrise and sunset, we sense how these men are reaching further and further for something profound, beyond themselves, not of this world.

By the final third of the documentary, we evolve to a state of envy — envious at their resolute commitment and their utter faith — and even the most cynical atheist might find himself convinced that if anyone will find God, it is these men straining to hear the faintest sound in the great hall, searching for that something in the ether.

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