Thursday, December 20, 2007

Film Review #141: Into Great Silence
2005/DVD 2007
Director: Philip Gröning
Cast: The monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery

For reasons unrelated to this story, my next youngest sister and I went to different high schools – she to the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a girls’ boarding school in Albany run by nuns. She had the same dorm room the entire time, over-looking the hillside cemetery behind the school. Among her first letters home, one reported the convent’s fall custom of digging three new graves in case any of the nuns died during the winter when the ground was frozen. Even my grandmother, with her nearly infinite trust in the judgment of nuns, agreed when my mother said, “Making a teen-ager stare out her bedroom window at open graves all winter is morbid.”

So, early in German director Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary of the Grand Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble in the French Alps – which begins in deep winter – when a stooped, elderly monk goes into a fenced yard and starts shoveling snow out of the first of three oblong pits, my mind leaped confidently back to Albany.

This film’s distance from our daily experience at first tempts you to seek such ways in. The US trailer emphasizes this removal and a sort of ancientness. It’s full of long shots – a zooming sky time-lapsed over the stone monastery dwarfed far below, the cloister’s long arched hallways and their massive blocks dwarfing the cowled figures within them – and offers the same spare text, white on black, as that which occurs at the very end of this very long film. In 1984 Gröning asked permission to film. The Carthusians said it was too soon. Sixteen years later they called back. After two years’ prep, the shoot took three visits over another year, and post-production two more.

Running 167 minutes, Into Great Silence has no voice-over commentary, no soundtrack other than ambient sound, no artificial lighting – besides these conditions, the monks allowed no crew except Gröning – and no explanatory captions along the way to make it easier. You simply need to keep watching to discover that old monk is getting his seedling beds ready for spring’s sunlit thaw. You learn this by adjusting yourself to the film’s rhythms. In due course he’s sorting seed packets whose orange carrots flash gregariously in the barn’s gloom – getting ready for life, not impending death. Released on a two-disc DVD set in late October with loads of extras, Into Great Silence has still been absorbing enough by its bare-bones arcane self to stay in some US theater from March till early December.

St. Bernard of Cologne’s founded the Carthusian order in 1084. Destroyed by avalanche once, by fire five times, rebuilt last in 1688, this monastery’s now home to an order of 19 houses with 370 monks in Europe, the US, Latin America and Korea (in the film one monk flies to Seoul). Grand Chartreuse can hold 30 monks; during filming four newcomers arrived. In a stroke of synchronicity, the nuns in the order’s five convents – once considered “too communal by nature” for private cells – achieved their long-sought goal of equal solitude in 1970, just as feminism blossomed elsewhere.

The film says nothing of such demographics, nor one word about Chartreuse, the herbal liquor whose manufacture supports the order. No summary tells you the routine includes rising at midnight for the first of the day’s three Masses, or weekly hours-long tramps through the countryside during which the monks converse. Instead of such explanations, ecstatic verses periodically appear where other films carry subtitles and we see a succession of images about this life ranging from austere to homely to lush.

Framed at beginning and end by the same quiet shot of a single young monk kneeling in his cell, the film incorporates roughly the first year of a young African novice named Benjamin from his arrival, and appears to conclude – Gröning last shot in December 2003 – with Christmas Eve’s midnight candle-lit, incense-infused procession and Mass. These monks’ daily lives are very physical, these cooks, gardeners, tailors, wood-choppers, protectors of barn cats and throwers of snowballs. Yet, entirely at ease in a mostly silent life, their gaze into the camera – Gröning periodically inserts portrait-like studies – is initially unnerving, eventually a source of serenity. Benjamin’s “portrait,” appearing near the end of the film and presumably shot near the end of his first year, is remarkable for the subtle change that has occurred.

Of course, Into Great Silence is “Catholic” only by coincidence. Gröning says he first wanted to do a film with “a feel for time usually masked in film by language and story,” only later hitting on the subject of the most ascetic of Catholic orders as a way to explore that cinematically. From their earliest days, experimental film and video makers have wrestled with this issue of duration and capturing the present moment. And of course all spiritual practices aim for such states of calm alertness. The rapt, dilated attention generated in the old High Latin Mass or from Gregorian chants reappears in the presence of some art, both in its experience and in its making.

Gröning meant this film for the “large darkness” of the theater, but I watched it through Sunday’s storm, where it became an antidote to Saturday’s frenzies in Carousel and Wegman’s. Treat yourself.

This review appears in the 12/20/issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.