Philip Gröning, 2005
In 1984, Philip Gröning first approached the Carthusian Order with the intention of making a film. 16 years later, they gave him permission to enter the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, allowing him to film every corner and crevice of its medieval architecture.
The documentary is, as you might expect, just as gentle and unhurried as the way of life it depicts. And yet, Into Great Silence finds as much beauty in the ephemera of the monastery grounds as in the virtue of its saintly residents: the camera often lingers on snow resting on flowers in the gardens, cats sheltering from rain in the cloisters, and dappled shadows cast onto wooden floors by drifting sunlight. Bookended by the repeated image of a monk kneeling in prayer, the film is a nearly 3-hour audiovisual meditation, offering a quiet retreat for world-weary souls.
Aside from the occasional sign of the modern technologized world -- a distant plane flies overhead, a chainsaw heard in the distance -- viewers are transported into a realm of experience unfamiliar to much of modern life; a world of solitude and silence suppressed beneath the mundane busyness of the day-to-day corporate grind.
While one would be hard-pressed to label the film a comedy, one sequence near the end offers a surprisingly uplifting relief to an otherwise austere and rigorous aesthetic form. In their allocated weekly trip outside the monastery, some of the younger residents venture into the mountains to play on the snow-covered slopes. From a distance, we see white-robed monks attempting to maintain their balance as they slide down the hill, bursting out in laughter as they watch their brothers fall to the floor.
Although this sequence marks an interruption to the otherwise sombre formality of the monastic timetable, it is frequently highlighted in the film’s small body of criticism -- perhaps because, as Matthew Boudway describes, it is Gröning’s “most surprising scene.” Maybe the humour is only accented by the film’s prior dearth of emotional stimulation; silent portraits of the monks dispersed throughout otherwise show little expression, and only one resident ever speaks to the camera.
Nevertheless, this vital injection of humour reframes, with subtlety, the tone of the entire documentary. The monks are shown to find liberation not purely in their ascetic sobriety -- though their faith is, assuredly, sincere -- but in their choice to approach life with renewed innocence. Through sacrificing the pleasures of this world in view of their hope for the one to come, they have found a form of life that is more essentially embodied, integrative and playful than our (or, at least, my) own, finding joy in the simple fact of their being in the world.
Absent are the fears and anxieties that consume much of my attention -- a need to perform, impress, and excel -- and in their place remains a childish wisdom; a refusal to conflate pleasure with luxury, or joy with wealth. Watching monks having a laugh reminds me not to take the wrong things too seriously. Creation affords enough beauty and joy to console, if temporarily, even the most cynical heart.