Into Great Silence

Sixteen years after first requesting permission to film within the walls of the beautiful Grand Chartreuse monastery located in a remote valley of the French Alps near Grenoble, director Philip Groning was finally granted unprecedented access to a way of life few outside the Carthusian monks themselves had ever seen. Filming over the course of several months...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Sixteen years after first requesting permission to film within the walls of the beautiful Grand Chartreuse monastery located in a remote valley of the French Alps near Grenoble, director Philip Groning was finally granted unprecedented access to a way of life few outside the Carthusian monks themselves had ever seen. Filming over the course of several months as the seasons changed from autumn to winter to spring, and using only natural light to illuminate his images, Groning has made a startlingly beautiful, virtually silent three-hour documentary about monastic life that appeals primarily to the senses, and has really very little to do with religious experience.

Famous for the greenish liquor that named after the monastery, or "charterhouse," the 1000 year-old Carthusian order lives according to rules considered to be among the most ascetic. Sworn to a life of poverty and observing a general rule of silence, the monks spend most of the day performing chores, participating in morning and evening masses and praying in solitude in their austere private cells. At night, they rise from their hard-wood after only three hours of sleep for hours of "night prayers." Groning was determined to experience life in the monastery as someone other than a tourist with a camera, and participated as much as possible in the less ecclesiastical aspects of Carthusian daily routine as if he were a monk himself. Filming as unobtrusively as he could manage and using two young men — one a novice; the other an African monk — as a narrative focus, Groning amassed 120 hours of footage from which he crafted a remarkably cohesive portrait of lives lived far removed from the cares of the modern world. No detail, it seems, is beneath his notice: The monks live according to an aesthetic of picturesque simplicity in which everything, from bowls of fruit to piles of firewood, are arranged with great care. Life within La Grand Chartreuse might even pass muster with Martha Stewart herself, as even the most mundane details of housekeeping achieve as certain level of artistry.

Groning forgoes any kind of explanatory voice-over narration, and given the Carthusian restrictions on speaking, interviews are out of the question save for a brief conversation with a blind, elderly monk at the very end. The approach simulates the peaceful solitude of contemplative isolation, but it can't possibly convey any real understanding of how the monastery sustains itself, or reveal all the real-world work that must necessarily go into sustaining such an way of life (we see nothing, for example, of the making and marketing of the famous Chartreuse). With virtually no religious content other than the subtitles translating the words of the Latin chants heard during mass and night prayers, we're also never asked to really think about the real purpose and significance of a monk's life. On the plus side, Groning's approach gives the viewer a rare chance to really listen to what water sounds like when it drips from a tin bowl, or the watch what patterns raindrops make when they fall on a shallow puddle — purely sensual, cinematic experiences. In such moments we sense the point of view of a patient, sensitive filmmaker. Whether or not one also sees the hand of the Creator in is left entirely up to the viewer.

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  • Released: 2007
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Sixteen years after first requesting permission to film within the walls of the beautiful Grand Chartreuse monastery located in a remote valley of the French Alps near Grenoble, director Philip Groning was finally granted unprecedented access to a way of l… (more)

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