"Into the Great Silence" is a German film about French monks who pray in Latin. The monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps houses a community of monks of the Carthusian order that has been praying in nearly-total silence and solitude for nearly a millennium. It took the filmmakers over a decade to obtain permission to film at the monastery, but the results are lovely. The monks live in an isolated Bavarian-style villa high in the mountains and hew to an austere daily regimen. They rise well before dawn to pray -- alone in their cells -- for hours. They occasionally gather to chant the liturgy of the hours. They retreat to their cells, where they take meals, bathe and study in solitude and silence. The film follows the monks through their day and over the course of a year, from the deep snows of winter, through the planting season, and around again to winter.
The film is long, it must be said. It features long, lingering shots of the monks at prayer -- favoring closeup shots of an ear, fingers, lips and eyes. But visually, the film is breathtaking. The interior of the monks' cells is spare, with plain wood furnishings and gray, stone walls. The diffuse lighting is almost entirely natural. Many of the shots achieve a Flemish painter's level of natural beauty and homeliness, with parts of the shot plunging into darkness. The camera lingers lovingly on small elements of the monkish life: a candle flame that hovers almost disembodied near the tabernacle in a near-dark chapel during middle-of-the-night prayer; a view of a snow-laden roof seen through a monk's window. The potential monotony of this approach is broken up using a number of techniques. Monks are caught as they make small movements -- adjusting the flue in a wood stove, eating from a tin of soup, scrubbing a plate, learning a new chant. Communal moments are shown as well -- the monks getting haircuts, filling pitchers of water, walking to chapel. The camera also focuses on the small things of nature -- a leaf, a rushing spring, water dripping from a drying dish, a patch of sky -- permitting us to study the beauty and simplicity of the small elements of the creation that surrounds us. In all of these ways, viewers find themselves drawn into the monks' silent world of prayer.
There are drawbacks and debatable choices. The filmmakers interspersed standard film stock with scenes made by (or in imitation of) the shaky home movie stock of the 1960s. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to provide a sense of the community's longevity. But the technique came just "this close" to being the a precious, film-school distraction. Though the Gregorian neums and script in the wonderfully over-sized chant books are an object of the filmmakers' attention, the contents of those beautiful words is never apparent. Those who have chanted the Divine Office during a retreat may know what is going on (the chanting of all 150 psalms over the course of a few weeks), but others will not. Too, there is a focus on the seasons of the year, but not on the seasons of the Church -- Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter -- which are enormously more significant to the monks. Then again, with a single unfortunate exception, one does not know much about the contents of or the motivation for the monks' prayer. What do they spend so much time doing -- meditating on the Passion? Scripture study? Self-analysis and reflection? By the same token, this lack of information brings viewers into contact with their own inner monologue -- "what are they doing now?" "How long will this movie last?" "How is the film structured?" These reflections, born of the silence of the movie theater, may precisely map to the inner lives of the men the film portrays. A more pressing issue is with the biblical texts that are occasionally (and with deliberate repetition) displayed on the screen. One verse, from Jeremiah, was horribly mistranslated from the French. The French read, "You seduced me, and I *allowed myself to be* seduced." The translation read, "You seduced me, and I was seduced," not entirely the same thing. Missing from both was the context of the verse, in which the prophet Jeremiah accuses God of luring him into prophetic career that caused him to be mocked and derided -- a far cry from the gentle feeling these words evoke when divorced from their biblical context. And one more problem: the one monk who spoke about his inner life was an elderly, blind man whose gentle piety was a vapid as his sight was blunted. One can only hope that others had an interior life that was less pollyannaish.
"Into Great Silence" is a challenging film on many levels. It is not easy to spend three hours watching others pray. But in the end, it succeeds in bringing the interior life of the monastery to a cinematic audience. Whatever flaws it suffers are subsumed to that larger and more worthy achievement -- the devotion of one's entire life to the worship of God.