Monday, March 9, 2009

DJG / Into Great Silence

Into Great Silence * * * * *
Directed by: Philip Groning / 2007

Talk about patience. It took them 16 years to reply to filmmaker Philip Groning’s request to document their intimate lives on film, but that is what it took for the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse to make a “yes” decision. Sandwiched in an isolated fairytale-like setting in the French Alps, the monks live on prime, gorgeous real estate. No wonder they can get closer to God. Not to mention that apart from electric hair clippers and running water, “modern” civilization is miles from their thoughts and routine in devotion to God, even as a jet flies over a monk sitting in his cubicle of silence. As I’m nearing the halfway mark of my own isolated cubicle day and twisted perceptions on man’s quest for intellectual and monetary gains, I can’t help but think that a monk’s life doesn’t sound too shabby in the abbey. I know I at least enjoy isolation and quiet...and God. Though, robes seem itchy, drafty and the option of watching movies as a monk would more than likely be out.

“Into Great Silence” is a uniquely fascinating film experience, a worship-like one. One where opinions are cast aside (other than scriptures repeated between chapters, which is quite refreshing and challenging) and subject(s) who rarely acknowledge the camera. Almost all engagement is in daily discovery of routine and ritual and nature. When they do, the interaction is very peculiar, almost eerie, as if they are observing the viewer right back, eyes locking instead of looking. It’s very sobering, very humbling (as is the entire film). These are mere mortals, just men who took a vow of poverty and isolation to get closer to God.

It's not all solemn, serious and boring of a life, like us "modern" ignorant souls might perceive. There are many lighthearted surprises. My favorite was watching a very elderly monk snow shovel his carrot patches. Upon completion he looks up at the camera and gives a joyful grin just like my late Grandfather, and with the same hunched-back. Another great moment, one that I’m not sure the monks knew was being watched, found them gleefully playing and sliding in the snow down a mountain side. Groning also caught them in everyday discussion and even while getting haircuts. Tapping into sides rarely seen or known to “outsiders”, these scenes shed a new light on monk life that at times can be perceived as fairly sterile, detached and void of any emotion other than discipline and devotion to God. It also cemented that God can be found and cherished in everything, in particular the simple act of chores and nature. There was one monk, blind from birth I recall, speaking to the camera about how it actually helped him see God better than if he had been born with eye sight.

Does the film’s view of monk life try the viewer’s patience? At times I’d have to answer that with a 16-year-long YES, as there is no urgency in the unfolding, not a definitive story to tell and very little soundtrack. And all of that isn’t a bad thing, in fact it is great. I wouldn’t suggest this movie to everybody, but I think that everybody should see at least a little bit of it, and results/reviews will be mixed. But, it’s never a knock-down-drag-out to get to the end, actually there is never really a beginning or middle. It’s a joy that found me more in-tune to finding rewards and wonders while watching than say, struggling to read monk Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation”, which basically had me feeling worthless as a human being at the halfway mark. I was quite inspired by the movie and wanted more than the already three hours (more or less) provided with “Into Great Silence.” One of the best things about the experience is how quiet and meditative it is. You can’t help but pay attention. Involvement is only that of observer, but its way more involved than simply sitting in church or watching paint dry. Sometimes the effect is fly-on-wall, sometimes even participant. It can even be very spiritual. I now wonder what God’s viewing must be like on an everyday basis of worship to him, by monk or anyone? And at its most quiet and still, you can bet He’s got it in high-def/surround sound.

Filming alone, Groning lived at Grande Chartreuse for 6 months and you can tell that a relationship bonded. I didn’t have time for extra DVD features, but I’m very curious about this bond or what the monks thought of Groning and his camera. Did they even know what it was? I’m sure they’re not that ignorant, but you never know. I also wonder if Groning was able to show them the final film? Lastly, I wonder what type of experience Groning got out of his extended stay. Maybe it will take 16 years for him to digest and answer? Was it life changing? I do know that a movie like “Into Great Silence” will make me at least try to sit up a little straighter in acknowledging God the best ways I can in a “modern man” life that can feel very distracted and distant instead of devoted disciple.


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