Saturday, January 13, 2007

Into Great Silence (2005)

In 1984 German director Philip Groning asked the Carthusian Order of monks, members of one of the most ascetic monasteries (The Grand Chartreuse, tucked deep into the French Alps), if he could make a documentary about them. They responded sixteen years later, with a yes. They laid down ground rules: Groning could not use a crew or artificial lighting. Out of this comes Into Great Silence, an immersive film documenting the everyday life of these most reclusive of holy men. With no score or voice-over, the film is entirely experiential - no information is given about these men aside from their actions. Over 162 minutes their rituals alternate between the banal and the hypnotic: paying bills on an IBM, shoveling snow out of the garden, initiating two hopefuls into the order, group chanting lit by a single candle.

As pared down as the film is, even less should've have been done. During scenes of choral chanting, Groning distractingly cuts in random shots of nature, breaking up the visual rhythm of the bobbing heads and needlessly poeticizing what should be displayed unvarnished of artistic meddling. The form should fit the content, and these cutaways, understandable in another setting, seem decadent considering the subject. The main value in the film is uncovering these rituals that few have ever seen over the centuries, so masking them in facile (and out-of-focus) close-ups of flowers is a mistake.

That aside, it's still an immensely valuable experience - fulfilling that most basic role of cinema: to show what hasn't been seen before. The shot of monks sledding down the Alps is worth the price of admission.

Into Great Silence opens at Film Forum on February 28.


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