Zeitgeist Films presents a documentary directed and written by Philip Groning. In French and Latin with English subtitles. Filmmaker Philip Groning spent six months living among the monks of the Grand Chartreuse Charterhouse in the French Alps for his documentary "Into Great Silence." The filmmaker was granted unprecedented permission to film in 2002. This was not given lightly, for his request was put forth to the prior sixteen years earlier.
This is cinema at its purest and most exalted. It is hard to place into words a film, which is wrought in silence. For 162-minutes you will be allowed a glimpse of the ascetic strictness of the monks. I do not see this as a documentary, but an immersion into an entire way of life that will have no voiceovers or explanations. Just a small part of our time spent in transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning, on man as a religious and social creature, on the form and function of symbols, ritual and traditions. And on the rhythms of work and prayer, night and day, winter and spring.
It is a beautiful film where everyone will take away something different and hopefully fulfilling. The film will not allow you to enter the world of the monks, but to just view it from the outside. You will see the day-to-day activities from season to season and be able to form your own opinions and conclusions. Many may at first experience impatience at the repetitions and variations encountered, but allow yourself time to adjust to the contemplative pace. And be witness to the ordinary moments that taken together are a representation of grace.
The Carthusian monks who are the subjects of this documentary do not have a great deal to say. Living in a light-filled stone charterhouse in a picturesque valley in the French Alps, they bind themselves to a vow not of literal silence but of extreme reticence. We view the daily lives, prayers and routines of this most ascetic of Catholic Orders founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno. The monks, because of their vow of poverty, subsist on very little. They pray aloud at times and sing solemn Gregorian chants, but they rarely speak, except on there Monday walks.
The monks in their rigor and discipline find their freedom and fulfillment. Your view on the monastery and our world will change as the movie progresses. And isn't that what a good movie or book is suppose to accomplish? It is a world of yesteryear as it existed one thousand years ago, where some modern technology has crept in, as you will see. In our modern world of moral decay this gives us a window to a traditional Catholic existence. A two thousand year tradition of following the Desert Fathers into a way of life that is rarely, if ever, seen.
I feel that this film is about the presence of God, a God who is there for those who seek Him with their whole hearts. In the film only a blind monk offers some simple but piercing observations on Christian happiness, abandonment to God's providential care, and the tragedy of the loss of faith and meaning in the modern world.
This film is not only for Catholics, it is for everyone in the world to see and benefit from.
on May 6, 2007
I saw this film in the Independent Film Forum in NYC's Greenwich Village, and ended up having a two hour discussion about it afterwards. The main thing that shocked me about this film was how happy all of these monks are. If anyone would tell the average modern American to have every hour of the rest of your life neatly regimented into time segments, without time for television, vacations, or intimacy with members of the opposite sex, most Americans would thing of that as being excruciatingly difficult. However, when looking at the daily activities of these men, you "get it". Because of the regimentation of their daily tasks, when they do get a few hours on Sunday to talk, those hours are beautiful and meaningful. Their lives seem like the way life was supposed meant to be, one of hard work and communion with the Creator. I highly recommend this movie to anyone looking for a film that will slow their mental pace down and make them reflect on the importance of the various things you value in your own life.
on August 4, 2007
5 stars for what it is - a meditative look into the sacred lives of these men, cloistered away from the world, but a community of believers who come together daily for prayer, and sometimes even for a bit of fun. If you watch this film, do so in a quiet place, and commit yourself to remaining in silence, without distraction, for the entire film, so you can experience the solitude and stillness of the monastery. The first hour may be excruciating, as you wait for something to happen, but as you relax into the quiet and feel the presence of God in the faces of the monks, you will get a taste of why people live in this way. What a gift this was - a gift from the monks to us.
on April 5, 2007
This almost silent three hour documentary tracks the daily lives of Carthusian monks living at the Chartreuse Monastery in the French Alps, as they live in a way that seems to be in such contrast with the modern world. It's a fascinating movie if you are able to get into the slow rhythm of the film (if you are still in the movie theater after an hour, you will probably made it to the third hour). By the same token, it would be almost impossible to see it in your house on DVD, since there are so many possible distractions that would make you want to stop the film. Remarkably, given that European filmmakers tend to be among the most secular people in the world, the movie is also surprisingly respectful of the choices made by the monks in living in this particular way.
on April 14, 2007
I was fortunate to view this Documentary last year in Pasadena, California.
I went to see it again last month in Santa Monica, California.
It is to a Documentary like this that people will view over and over and ask themselves the question of: "Why"? The life of a Carthusian Monk is so far removed from our life in the World and we ask ourselves why one is drawn to become a Carthusian Monk.
There is no religious order that takes a VOW OF SILENCE. This was a common belief of the Trappists (Cistercians). As with the Trappists of old, Carthusians simply 'OBSERVE' Silence and eventually desire it.
From the Solemn Investiture of Novices into the Charterhouse of Le Grande Chartreuse; watching Monks getting a hair-cut; the tailor-monk making new habits; the simple act of eating one's meal alone in cell; the Solemn, repetitive chanting of the "BENEDICITE" from the Psalms in a darkened, candlite Church; to Monks enjoying their once-a-week outing on the snow slopes of the French Alps.......all these acts draw us inward and overwhelm our senses and give us a sense and portion of what it is like to be a member of the Strictest Order within Roman Catholicism.
If viewers are interested in further knowledge of the Carthusian Life, they might want to get Nancy Klein Maguire's book: "AN INFINITY OF LITTLE HOURS". Dr. Maguire takes us to St. Hugh's Charterhouse, Parkminister, U.K. and follows 5 young men from 1960 as they enter this Charterhouse to follow their desire to become a Carthusian Monk.
Dr. Maguire's book is a magnificent companion to "INTO GREAT SILENCE'
It is a book that I have read and re-read many times and have not been moved so much since, except when I first read Thomas Merton's Autobiography - "SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN".
Buy the DVD! (Into Great Silence)
Buy the BOOK! (An Infinity of Little Hours)
YOU WILL BE DOUBLY BLESSED!!
on July 12, 2007
I probably experienced this film differently than others because I already had a great interest in the Carthusians and have read quite a bit about them. In a way this was a disadvantage because I was so fascinated to see things I'd read about, that something of the "contemplative" character of the movie was wasted on me. It depends on the alienness and mysteriousness of the Carthusian life, which in a sense you are not really supposed to figure out much about! I will watch it again though and this time just to experience it.
A friend and I watched this in our church's social area and when one of our priests (a elderly Italian religious) walked by and I told him what we were watching he said that he had visited the Carthusians once when he was a young priest, and that although he greatly admired them, he could never live their lifestyle, he would go crazy in under a month! If you read the recent book "An Infinity of Little Hours" you will learn that some would-be Carthusians don't take nearly that long to realize this isn't for them! So one of the most surprising scenes to me was that of a postulant being escorted by singing monks into his new hermitage, which had been lovingly decorated with many little candles. The more you realize what an intense moment this can be, the more you will be affected by how extremely tender and fraternal the scene is. There is more "plot" and happenings in the film than first meets the eye, but it is rightfully obscured relative to the sense of the unceasing rhythm of the monastery life, again part of the film's fascination is its mysteriousness and the difficulty of interpreting what you are seeing, without any explanation. The film attempts to communicate a life of profound prayer which the appropriately-disposed viewer may experience some of the savor of.
There are some luminous glimpses of divine strength and beauty inhabiting human weakness, in men who have in some way BECOME prayer--the blind elderly monk who is briefly interviewed at the end enthralled me. He is like St. John of the Cross' metaphor of the clean window which is able to be made bright by sunlight. Very beautiful.
There's never been a film of life in a Carthusian monastery, and may never be again, and "Into Great Silence" has too many merits for this viewer to find any fault.
on May 29, 2007
I was totally transported by the beauty of this film and the profundity of its message and was not bored for one second. In contrast, coming out of the film I felt bombarded by the ugliness of our modern surroundings, the visual vulgarity, mind-numbing noise, and frenetic agitation all around. I wished to be back in the film's ambience of the sacred.
It helps to have a sense of the sacred to appreciate this film. If you are looking for action, even if it's only the monks' "inner" struggle, pick another movie. This one is about success on the spiritual path not failure, and measure of success in the monastery is different from that in the world. These men entered the order with a purpose, to seek the great Peace, and they have found it. One has only to look at their faces, presented with stark directness to know this. Yes, we could be told of all the struggles they faced and the joys they knew, but it is not the purpose of this film to expose a roller coaster of emotions that we can imagine, but to show the extraordinary peace we cannot imagine, and it does this brilliantly with its beautiful camera work and its stately and dignified pace.
Some want to know what these men are thinking. Perhaps they are thinking about God, and their thoughts of God need not be complex to be profound, for the simple utterance of His name can contain all other prayers. This connection of silence with the search for God is expressed by the most diverse spiritual authorities from Black Elk - "for is not silence the very voice of the Great Spirit?", to Jili - "He who speaks becomes silent before the Divine Essence", To St. John of the Cross - "One word spake the Father, which Word was His Son, and this Word He speaks ever in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul".
It is hoped that the viewers of this film will look past the need to be entertained and open themselves to what this film has to teach us. I for one am very grateful to those that produced it and for those who so generously allowed us entrance to this sacred world.
The movie is an unique experience. I'm glad I saw it in a small theater. I'm not sure how it would play at home on a DVD. The movie is slow and meditative. Any distraction would tend to remove one from the experience. In the theater, people eating their popcorn, shuffling their feet, or even moving around, were major distractions. The audience wasn't intentionally rude, but the meditative silence of the movie pulls one into the movie and other sounds bring you back into reality.
It doesn't really cover the lives of the monks, but rather gives glimpses into certain aspects of their lives. You have a far better idea of the rhythm of their lives, but not really a better idea of how they live or why they live that way. I see the attraction of the focused lifestyle, but year after year. Wow. The movie is hard to describe. The movie consists of a collection of different snapshots of the lives of the monks, I think using the rhythm of the prayer times and the seasons to pull the snapshots all together. There isn't a narrative thread. The director interviews a blind monk at the end and that does help to put into perspective the lives of the monks. They are pursuing happiness in God through disciplining their lives in silence and solitude. A good scene is the monks horsing around in the snow. Another good scene is the good-hearted debate about the hand washing. The scenes made them more human, more accessible to me.
I'm not sure if I can recommend the movie. I don't know if I would call it a enjoyable experience. I'm glad I watched it and it is a movie I'll remember. However, it is a very beautiful, very long, and very slow movie. Only a few, motivated people would like the movie. The movie made me reflect on my own life and my pursuit of God so it has very good results.
on May 3, 2007
Into Great Silence was quite the film. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought it looked fascinating. Then, I heard it was a near 3-hour film about monks and almost entirely silent. Needless to say, I felt reserved. Even as a spiritual person I didn't know if I could find myself captivated for that long with that type of a movie. I was wrong. The near 3-hour run time felt more like an average 2-hour film, even with its slow pace and silence. This film was beautiful in two different ways. First of all, many of the shots were fantastic. Groning used natural lighting and found ways to capture many darkly lit scenes in ways that were incredible. Also, his edited shot selection was great. The biggest visual downfall were the many grainy shots. I was disappointed with those and found myself wishing the entire film was shot with a clear lens. Regardless, that was not enough keep me from enjoying this film.
The second beautiful aspect of this film was its spirituality. Knowing that these men have willingly chosen this path for their lives and seeing their passion (although in a very relaxed and focused way) unfold on-screen was powerful. It's a life I know I could never lead, but I have respect for those who can. I can not honestly recommend this movie to everyone. I think it will take a certain kind of film fan to enjoy this movie. Keep in mind that it's a slow-paced, very quiet film before seeing it. But also note that the visuals and spiritual aspects are well worth watching. This is my favorite film of 2007 thus far.
on August 9, 2007
The last year or so has seen a virtual revolution in our understanding of the human aspect of Carthusian life. First there was the revealing study of several former Carthusian monks by Nancy McGuire, An Infinity of Mirrors, and now the documentary Into Great Silence. The reversal of Carthusian anonymity might be well symbolized by the haunting close-ups of the faces of Carthusian monks in the film. Previously, all that one would ever see of Carthusians in pictures was their backs. Even then, their cowls were raised to conceal any suggestion of individuality.
There is, nonetheless, in this revealing film, a fundamental flaw that leaves the Carthusians as mysterious (and perhaps open to misunderstanding) as they have ever been. The film is essentially a work of art, a sensitive rendering of a beautiful monastic environment. Yet anyone who approaches the Carthusian experience as essentially aesthetic is missing the point: and this error is likely the reason why so many attempt this vocation and soon depart (the retention rate holds steady at about 10% of all who enter). It is a life of unending sameness, intentionally tedious in its repetition, forcing the Carthusian to slowly minimize his submersion in the physical world with its seductions and beauties. It is certainly true that one paradoxical consequence of such routine is intense attention to physical details: the beautiful setting, the subtle nuances of the liturgy, the fly returning to a dinner pear. But in this film, such physical details seem to form the core of the life. In reality such attention to the beautiful small details of natural life soon becomes tedious (both for the Carthusian and the viewer of the film); and the monk must move beyond images to the spiritual core of the vocation: the imageless contemplation of God.
The film does attempt to suggest this core in the repeated images of monks engaged in meditative prayer. But watching someone meditate is a far cry from the experience itself. The latter is endlessly eventful and increasingly profound. The observation of it is unbearably tedious. I give the filmmaker credit for attempting to represent the Imageless,but the images of film are, finally, the antithesis of contemplation. Restless Americans seem to have particular difficulty with such uneventful living. Witness the change from of the original German title: "Die grosse Stille" to the English "Into Great Silence", the latter promising us action and movement rather than just Being, to put it philosophically.
On the other hand, in its attempt to present the Unchanging, the film is excessively silent. Although its structure suggests the flow of Carthusian days and seasons, the lack of explication leaves an uninitiated viewer with little understanding of the intentional balancing of this essentially eremitic life with community living: the alternation between solitary liturgical prayer and the choir liturgy is suggested, but not explained. The conversation for maintaining human relations in an otherwise intensely solitary life, is recorded here, the talk both erudite and amusing, another little known characteristic of Carthusian life.But its weekly occurance is not pointed out. The sleeping arrangements, the daily interruption of sleep at midnight for the night office, and the rigorous fasts (bread and water at least once a week) are significant elements of the life that are not featured here.
As other reviewers have noted, with one dramatic exception, the monks do not speak about their lives. I suspect that since Carthusians Have left "the world" this was a condition of filming. At first, I did not appreciate this, but on reflecting, their silence conveys the core of this life more powerfully than interviews which would likely have been mundane and pietistic. The Carthusian life, as the film makes clear, leaves speech far behind.
So, for a number of reasons, I was unhappy with the film. On the other hand, many weeks later, the images of these silent white figures in their echoing cloisters keep coming back at odd moments during my busy days in the world...theologically that is one purpose of this mysterious life.