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By Carol Ann Raphael
WIE Issue 33
There's a buzz in Germany about a movie in which there are barely two
minutes of dialogue, no interviews, no voice-overs, no archival footage, and
no sound track. In other words, a silent movie. Or, more accurately, a movie
For nearly three hours, Into Great Silence, directed by Philip Groening,
tracks the lives of resident monks in one of the most ascetic monasteries in
Roman Catholicism, the Grande Chartreuse. The mother house of the strict
Carthusian Order, it was founded nearly one thousand years ago in the French
Alps between Grenoble and Chambéry, and little has changed since then. The
monks carry out their days in almost complete isolation and silence, each
inhabiting a two-story cell where he works, prays, eats alone, and sleeps on
a straw bed. The monks leave their cells only three times every twenty-four
hours to journey down the corridor to the chapel.
This makes for a film of startling simplicity and unusual concentration. The
tolling of the bells announces each activity during the tightly structured
day: 8:00pm bedtime, 11:30pm rise for prayer, 12:15am lauds and matins in
the chapel for two to three hours, 6:30am rise, 7:00am prayer, and so on
throughout the day. A single meal is delivered at midday. There is never a
full night of sleep. There is no free time. And there is no fear, according
to the filmmaker who shared the monks' rigorous life over a period of six
months to make his documentary of this world set apart.
Into Great Silence has become a cult phenomenon in Groening's native
Germany, filling theaters and climbing the box office charts since its
premiere in November 2005 to reach the rank of fifteen in movie attendance.
That's a remarkable achievement for a film in which virtually nothing
happens. It was awarded the World Cinema Special Jury Prize in the
documentary category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and
distributors are quickly acquiring the rights to show it in other European
countries and in North America.
What's attracting these audiences? Unlikely that it's nostalgia for the
early days of silent film. Nor does the memory of Andy Warhol's deathly
boring eight hours of the Empire State Building seen from a single point of
view seem likely to ignite enthusiasm in today's sophisticated cinema buffs.
Could it be something akin to a recent trend to convert monasteries into
chic hotels that has been sweeping through Italy, or the popularity of
staying at convents instead of equally pricey hotels? That too is doubtful,
since the preference for cloistered accommodations probably reveals more
about the skill and ingenuity of marketers than it does about any real
desire on travelers' part to experience a medieval way of life.
Groening explains that he originally wanted to make a movie about the
present moment, about that single moment of time that is always “now.” Only
later did he realize that he could do this by documenting life in a
monastery, a place where one's relationship to time is completely altered.
As he put it, “What is time for someone who knows that he will never leave
this building, this cell?” After waiting sixteen years to be granted
permission to enter the remote world of the Grande Chartreuse, he moved into
one of the cells, participated in all aspects of monastic life, and shot his
film in the two to three hours allotted each day for labor. He worked
entirely on his own, with no artificial lights, no crew, nothing
Reviewers are praising the film's poetic vision, magnificent austerity,
visual splendor, and what one critic referred to as nearly “tactile” sound.
When all one hears is the occasional rustling of cloth or opening of a door,
the quality of sound is essential to revealing the pervasive silence in
which the monks conduct their lives. Some have commented that the film
becomes a literal extension of the monastery and that the theater itself
embodies monastic space. It's this sense of hermetic time, of the eternal,
that Into Great Silence seems to be offering moviegoers -- a view into a
world where the present moment is all there is.
The recognition that solitude may have a beneficial, even vital function in
our busy contemporary lives is beginning to surface in other places as well.
A recent internet buzz was created when a University of California
neurobiologist named Leo Chalupa proposed a national day of absolute
solitude. Chalupa believes an entire day spent without verbal exchange of
any kind with another person would be the best antidote for our overtaxed,
overstuffed brains and the ideal way to attain optimal brain performance.
A researcher at the University of British Columbia has come to similar
conclusions. Psychologist Peter Suedfeld found that “people are chronically
stimulated, both socially and physically” and that we “are probably
operating at a stimulation level higher than that for which our species
evolved.” His remedy? More time alone. And what to do during all this time
alone? Two French scientists have a suggestion: listen to the silence. In
their recent experiments with eleven people who did just that, who listened
to the sound of silence, they discovered that such attentive listening can
actually help the brain to focus.
The silence of the Carthusian monk clearly is of a different order and
gravity altogether. The Carthusian monk listens for God, and silence is the
condition in which this can occur; it's not the goal. But as the growing
numbers of people wanting to see Into Great Silence attest to, there are
rewards for taking the time to pay attention, to see and hear things
precisely -- whether it's a few hours of mental freedom at the cinema,
improved brain performance, or finding God.
There couldn't be a better reason to go to the movies.
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