Written by Caballero Oscuro
Imagine a world of voluntary solitude and silence, with scarcely any human contact or modern conveniences. Into Great Silence explores this cloistered life in the remote Grande Chartreuse monastery nestled deep in the picturesque French Alps. Here, men divest themselves of all material possessions to completely devote their attention to God, leaving behind careers, relationships, and technology to return to a simple way of life largely unchanged throughout the centuries. We all have a concept of what life in a monastery might entail, but Philip Groning’s documentary provides the real deal in exquisite, languid detail.
Groning first approached the monks in 1984 with the request to film his documentary. At the time, the monks denied his request but said they might be ready in 10-12 years. 16 years later, they were ready for him and he eagerly took them up on their acceptance of his offer. He didn’t just drop by for a few days of casual filming; he actually moved into the monastery for six months and lived among the monks, obeying their customs and respecting their way of life. This afforded him unequaled insight into the reality of their situation, allowing him to craft a deeply moving portrait of their world. He didn’t have any film crew, so he was solely responsible for the entire project, completely relying on natural lighting and fortuitous timing to capture his incredible footage.
Since the monks maintain a vow of silence, the film is largely devoid of any speech. This extends to commentary, as Groning wisely eschews any voice-over in favor of letting the scenes speak for themselves. Groning also avoids the use of a soundtrack or archival footage, keeping the focus completely on the daily activities of the monks. Viewers may not always understand what the monks are doing due to the lack of description, but the approach works wonders as an immersive technique. There’s also little in the way of any narrative arc other than the change of seasons and the introduction of some new arrivals near the midpoint, again enforcing the concept that the monastery is as it has always been, presented to viewers in a completely unadulterated state.
The monastery was founded in 1084 and has endured throughout the centuries with little change or recruitment efforts. The monks believe that they are following the will of God, so they’re completely unconcerned if His will is that the monastery runs out of monks and closes its doors some day. They do run a business to support themselves, producing a green herbal liqueur named after the monastery, but the film completely sidesteps this aspect of their existence. It’s disturbing to realize that the monks survive by producing an alcoholic beverage for the delight of sinners, but to their credit they originally created it as a medicinal drink so they somewhat deflect any criticism since they can’t be blamed for its misappropriation by the heathens. Also, at the end of each year they donate any remaining profits to charity so they’re clearly not getting rich off peddling monk moonshine.
So how do the monks communicate with each other? Well, as it turns out, they’re not silent all the time. Once a week, they go for a long walk in the country and are allowed to talk to each other for its duration. Also, they have a system of passing notes throughout the week as needed. Aside from that, they maintain their silence. As for their solitude, each monk is assigned his own private living quarters and stays there most of the time for worship and meals, venturing out only for chores, communal services, and the sole communal meal held each Sunday afternoon.
It’s shocking to think of actually making such a drastic and seemingly depressing life change, but the film strives to show that the monks treasure their choice and relish their monastic lives. They lead exhausting lives, especially because they gather for worship around the clock so they never get a full night’s sleep, but they seem completely content. They’re seen laughing with each other on one of their weekly walks, and at the film’s most surprising juncture they’re shown playing in the snow like schoolboys, taking turns sliding down a hillside to their obvious delight. Even their daily private worship seems blissful, as they’re surrounded by a stunning and pristine environment that shows them the wonders of God every day.
The film must be watched in the right frame of mind, as casual viewers with little clue of what’s in store will likely be bored out of their minds by its unhurried pace. At nearly three hours in length, it could be a bit of an endurance test for some, but viewers successfully able to escape from the multitasking modern world will find themselves enraptured by a truly transcendent experience.
Into Great Silence opens in limited release in NYC on February 28, followed by Los Angeles on March 9 before moving to additional locations over the next few months. For more information and venues, visit the film's website.