In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Groning wrote to La Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps to get permission to make a documentary of the Carthusian monks there. Sixteen years later, they contacted him and told him they were ready. Groning shot for six months without a crew or any artificial lighting, and the result is Into Great Silence, a two hour and forty minute documentary of almost pure silence.
Into Great Silence is not a typical documentary. Groning does not ask why these men choose such an aescetic lifestyle nor does he give a detailed account of their day-to-day activities. Instead, he creates a film that is just as “simple” as the life these monks lead, placing and, at almost three hours long, perhaps forcing, the audience into their routine. However, Groning’s choice of camera placement and angles also allows for the necessary respectful distance of such an “intrusion.” The silence is infrequently broken by the monks’ chants, their occasional conversations with one another, and a brief interview with one of the older monks who happens to be blind. The breathtaking images of the French Alps and the surrounding environs, the beautiful, naturally lit monastery, and the monks’ peaceful prayer times are broken up with intertitles, the most frequently used being Jesus’ assertion that unless a man give up everything he cannot by my disciple and the phrase “the Lord seduced me, and I was seduced.”
Given the nature of this documentary, Groning does not force the audience to ask why these men choose the monastic lifestyle nor does he force us to consider making such a momentous decision. It does, however, encourage us to pause and reflect on our own lives and how they too might be an “eternal prayer.” This is no simple “stop and smell the roses” encouragement either. The contemplative life has often drawn criticism throughout history for the distance it places between the monastic and the rest of the world. However, such criticism also depends on one’s view of the interconnectedness of humanity. Just how close are we to one another? We are often quick to bemoan the harm that we do to the environment and one another, willingly or unwillingly; however, are we willing to imagine that the good works we do, and even our prayers, can have positive effects in the world as well?
Into Great Silence is a documentary, but it is also an art film and, as such, is not for the restless viewer. Watching this film requires something akin to spiritual and mental preparation. It offers a quiet space for reflection and meditation during the film rather than afterwards. The film should encourage us all to be more contemplative in our daily lives and to be mindful of those who choose this lifestyle and to be encouraged by their prayers for a broken and hurting world.