The new movie Into Great Silence has received a great deal of attention in Europe, and has been eagerly awaited by small but fervent groups of people here in America (mostly in the Catholic blogosphere). What made observers sit up and take notice in Europe was that audiences were lining up to watch a three-hour documentary about Carthusian monks — a film largely devoid of dialogue and plot, but one that viewers nonetheless found mesmerizingly rewarding. It opened on Wednesday in Manhattan, and will be coming to a theatre near you soon; I am thrilled to report that it is even better than the advance buzz led me to expect.
German filmmaker Philip Gröning spent six months living with the monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Without a crew, and without artificial lighting, he was able — unobtrusively — to record the monks’ daily life, and thereby to create an immensely valuable spiritual document.
It’s hard to capture even mundane truths in images; that’s why the typical nonfiction movie tends to get mired in talkiness. In Gröning’s film, however, the images manage to communicate powerful truths about God, man, and the life of prayer. The natural lighting makes an important contribution: For maybe 50 percent of the film’s length, the image is grainy, with the visuals resolved into tiny points of color, spinning about in something like Brownian motion. As a result, the material world seems to lose its solidity, to be, perhaps, a shadow or a copy of something else.
Which is a great metaphor for the life of mysticism and contemplation — because it’s not just the material objects that start appearing less than substantial in this film, but also the egos of the human characters. One of the great religious expressions in history is the Hindu phrase that the atman (the individual soul) equals the Brahman (the divine). In the Christian tradition, the same insight is expressed in a somewhat different form, i.e., that man is created in God’s image, but has dirtied the image, and will only reach his goal by a cleansing of the image so that it will be yet again a perfect mirror of its Creator. In both theologies, the key is to restore a realization of unity, by defeating the unhealthy division (diagnosed in the East as egoism, in the West as sin).
The film begins with an image of one of the monks praying. His prayer is obviously focused and intense, but we see the monk himself through a visually pleasant fuzziness. He is uniting himself to God, and we intuit that everything that separates him from God is in the long but sure process of disappearing.
It helps that not everything in the film is of an equal level of intensity. (T. S. Eliot’s line is over-quoted only because it is spot-on: “Mankind cannot bear very much reality.”) One of the most delightful scenes is a rare glimpse, toward the film’s end, of the monks at play. Even the most austere of human beings needs to have some fun, and the spectacle of the monks sliding gleefully down a snow-covered slope — much as the Beatles did in Help!; I’m not kidding — is a sheer joy to watch. Here, too, the director’s touch is unerring: We see the frolic first from a very high angle, then from a great distance. The subtle but unmistakable implication is that there is an Observer, one whose nature is to find joy in the joy of His creatures.
In the last few minutes, a blind, elderly monk delivers the film’s only monologue, which is short and powerful. He says that Christians must never be sad, because at the heart of their faith is the recognition that God wants only what is good for us. I rejoice in my blindness, he says, because God must have known it would bring me closer to Him.
Surely I am not alone in feeling daunted by a faith so intense. I am not up to that, I think, and I find it hard even to imagine that I ever could be. So is this a movie only for the holy ones among us — and will it leave the rest of us merely chastened in our inadequacy?
No, says director Gröning — and here, too, he succeeds in making his point visually. On a few occasions, he intersperses close-ups of the faces of individual monks, just looking toward the camera. These are the faces of ordinary people, people like us — not the intellectual elite, not people who appear born to radiate sanctity, but people who have found a pearl of great price, a few days, as it happens, before the rest of us.
See this film. The next time you are having a crisis of purpose, or just feeling beaten down by circumstances, call it to mind: This — or something very much like it–is true.