Into Great Silence

Into Great Silence

We’re 140 minutes into the press screening and people are beginning to leave. They’ve seen enough. I suppose that’s fair. Hardly a word has been spoken since the beginning of Philip Groning’s aptly titled Into Great Silence. But there’s only so much silence you can take.

Twenty-one years ago, Groning thought about making a film about life inside an ascetic Catholic monastery, a place where all adherents were forced to take an oath of silence. Two years later, he approached the monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps near Grenoble. No one had ever filmed there before. Visitors and tourists are still kept off the premises. “We’re not ready,” they said. “Come back in 10, 13 years maybe.” After Groning had gone on to make 1992’sThe Terrorists and Philosophie (1998), the monks called and asked if he was still interested. “Hell, yeah,” the German documentary maker exclaimed. Confining himself to a miniature cell and adhering to a policy of strict silence (except during his one weekly walk), Groning lived at the Grand Chartreuse for nearly six months, tip-toeing around with his camera and capturing the routine and isolation of those who choose to spend their lives there.

The result is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s not exactly riveting viewing. In its attempt to capture the texture of the order’s strict regimen, Into Great Silence relentlessly returns to the same biblical text and the same images—men praying, men reading, men chanting, men doing chores. The film often has a Caravaggio-like beauty, but yes, this does gets monotonous. I’ll admit that I nodded off for about five minutes around the hour and half mark. But you do leave the film with the sense that you really have lived through a unique experience. You don’t learn an incredible amount about the order, its history or precepts. But you begin to hear in a new way. You start to experience time in a new way. When was the last time you could say that after a trip to the multiplex?

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Groning’s camera enters the Chartreuse around the same time as a green young African aspirant. We sit in on his initiation to the order and then follow his first days. His cell is crowded with photos from a past life we can only imagine. What, we want to ask him and his fellow monks, prompted you to come here? How does it feel to know that the next 65 years of your life will pass by as you sit in a cold cell? You think you can read the lines on their foreheads or the cast of their eyes. But, as the film comes to a conclusion, these questions persist.

Into Great Silence frustrates our obsession with and lust for information, chatter and speed. But if you’re feeling awake and mentally adventurous, Groning’s film might be the most rewarding three hours you’ve spent in a theatre this year.

Into Great Silence is now playing at the Carlton (20 Carlton, 416-598-2309)