Into Great Silence is surely one of the bravest films ever made. Almost three hours long, no script, no score, no commentary. I was compelled to see such a daring feat of minimalism.
Over 20 years before the film’s release, German director Philip Groening applied for permission to film at the Carthusian monastery of Grande Chartreuse in a far corner of the French Alps. He was told it was too early, perhaps in 10-13 years it would be the right time.
16 years later his requested was accepted.
The Carthusian order, possibly the most ascetic Christian order, has remained largely unchanged for a thousand years, so they were not about to be rushed into such a venture. Unlike the UK, France is lucky enough to have preserved many of its ancient monastic sites. The site of Grande Chartreuse is as beautiful as it is remote, and Groening wastes no time in emphasising either aspect.
As if testing the viewer’s resolve Groening starts with a great deal of stillness. I find myself twitching for the fast-forward after 2-3 minutes: a monk praying in an inner world too private and distant for me to enter; a monk standing still through a doorway waiting for the right time to ring a bell. Can I make it through three hours with this strange combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia?
Two new monks arrive to be received into the order and I am suddenly so moved by the ceremony, I forget my mind’s unwillingness. I enter into the silence with them. Suddenly it is warm, nourishing, familiar, natural, and I feel so at home I don’t want the 3 hours to end. Suddenly these are real people in a modern world, and I realise this is not an escape from life. How brave they must be, how sincere, how strong, how grounded, how balanced to enter so consciously into a life of almost total silence.
We pray with them, we shovel snow, wash celery, chop wood, deliver laundry, cut cloth, eat bread, all in silence and solitude. A monk gives a silent interview with the camera for a few seconds, and another. How can only this make such a compelling film? Perhaps Groening’s sensitivity lets us inside not just the walls but the people behind them. They splinter their fingers, they struggle to learn songs, they fall asleep in services, they feel self-conscious, they feel the cold, they grow old. They were not born with wings; they are human. Groening is also a remarkable artist ? some of the shots are masterpieces of outer simplicity and inner symmetry, which makes the film all the more real, relevant, and mesmerising.
I would not say this film changed my life; rather that it affirmed something I already knew: that one can learn more through silence than through words, as all answers are within. The silence is great indeed; it can be daunting or embracing depending on whether one sits outside it or within it. Once you step inside this film, you will enter a profound and poetic harmony that really cannot be captured by words.
Sumangali Morhall has been a member of the Sri Chinmoy Centre for ten years. She also edits Sumangali.org, dedicated to the spirit of serendipity.