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Movie Review: Into Great Silence

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Here’s a film for those old enough to recall a resurgence of interest in monasticism in the late 1980s when records – yes, records – and tapes of Gregorian chants were bought and played for an uncommon peace. And if you were one of those who has read all the books by and about Thomas Merton, then this film is for you. If you had dreams of wearing a nun’s habit, or toyed with the idea of being a priest or monk, then this film is for you. If you love and understand meditation and silence, then Into Great Silence was made for you. Why? Because it has almost no dialogue or music. And when there is dialogue it consists mostly of prayers. The rare music comes from mass or reading from the Bible.

It is a detailed and divining look at cloistered life inside the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. The conversation as well as the prayers are in French, with English subtitles. But its rarified atmosphere is more like Lourdes than Paris. Filmed by German filmmaker Philip Gröning in 2006, the film runs for 162 minutes and is available on DVD.

Silence is a typical vow of those who enter cloistered orders. It is based on the belief that the five senses and the portals of the body are sources of evil, or where evil can gain a foothold and thus pull one down and away from God. Those who follow an order and its “rules” must shun any sort of stimuli that might lead to impurity in thought, word or deed — a truly holy life the goal. So when the world is offered this rare glimpse into such a life, don’t expect a party or even a sound.

The very stillness of this film made it akin to watching great art at the Louvre in Paris. But instead of the watcher moving around the picture, the picture moves around the watcher.

The audience is taken by the hand inside the cell (a small walled-off space) of the monk and inside his life. The grounds are also on display, an alpine view of snow-covered mountains, valleys, woods and streams. Throughout the film each of the monks, from applicant to abbot, is introduced. We are not told their names, nor do they talk on camera. It is only a face that we study. Monks who appear in the film are not actors, but people living a group life, bien difficile, especially by modern standards. But the difficulty is more than physical, it is also emotional and spiritual. The men are seduced into following Christ and they are fully aware and welcome this seduction. We are reminded of this, along with other aphorisms (spelled out in French, German and English) throughout the film.

I live in a small town with only one theater that regularly accommodates the “artsy film.” This film, which I was lucky to catch, was screened only four times over the past weekend. I thought I would be only among a handful of people there. I was wrong. The show let out while we waited and a full house emerged from the darkness. And there was a good-sized crowd waiting for the last show offered.  People left before the movie ended, realizing that they could not deal with so much silence and stillness, but that was okay. I thought I was going to be the only one there in the first place.

I have closely studied French medieval monasticism for the past seven years. It was from the lives, letters, lectures, and writings of Heloise and Abelard that the university system was born, first near Paris and later disseminated throughout Europe. Monasteries have long been the repository of a treasure trove of the world’s knowledge, especially the Classics. The very Western tradition we enjoy was imported from the great minds and philosophies of the ancient world: Greece and Rome, the place where the Bible was translated from Aramaic to Greek, where it was then able to be translated into Latin.

The advent of the printing press and the Latin Bible both made “modern” life possible. Many books, I dare call scholarship, have been written lately causing a renewed interest in atheism. Well-meaning men have once again put God on the critical list. Religion is its roommate. Religion and the genetic code that causes us to seek God are espoused as evil, both pegged as the source of war and human suffering. The fragile individual, however, seems to forget one thing: along with the rest of the world, that they owe their very literacy to religion and faith, all faiths. Science was born from religion. Man should not forget that regardless of the status of this relationship, one birthed the other.

However,  this film does not extol or count the civilization contributions of the Catholic Church per se, or of any other church. What it does very well is to remind us that simplicity is what we are missing in our lives. And that simplicity can be had for free, just by closing your eyes, turning off the electronics and breathing the fresh air during a walk. Stress reduction never looked so good as watching grown men playing and sliding down snow-covered slopes. The brothers in Christ in this film took group walks as a means of exercising the soulful communion and familial connections one with the other. During all activities however the brothers were never to forget the rules that governed all aspects of this life, even rules to walk by. They could not, for instance, eat or drink while they walked.

Monastic life is governed by the rules of its founder and the particular faith. Therefore there is more than one type of robe a man might wear, and more than one type of abbot that a monk might follow. Thomas Merton belonged to the Trappist Order who have a large monastery in the woods near Louisville, Kentucky. The Carthusians portrayed in Into Great Silence take a different vow, and amend their lives accordingly. But many of the house rules and structure of daily living were similar.

Here the audience walked through and within a grand stone estate where the men lived and slept in a cell, with a stove at its heart and a small area where they could study. Silence, prayer, and study make up the atoms of their existence. The pursuit of knowledge through reading and study after all, wrote Cicero, is the root of true happiness in life. If that is the case then the cloistered are some of the happiest people in the world.

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  • This is such a wonderful film. When it received a single screening, at noon on a Sunday, last year at a film festival in New York, the crowd was standing room only. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I found the experience of seeing Into Great Silence both very calming and deeply moving.