Sunday, April 01, 2007

Into Great Silence: absorbing reality documentary film about monastic life in France

Title: Into Great Silence (“Die Grosse Stille”)
Distributor: Zeitgeist; website for this film:
Director: Philip Gronig
Language: French
Country of origin: Germany, France
Length: 162 min
Technical: Super 8 and apparently high-def digital video, Arri, 1.85 to 1, Dolby Digital
Rating: Not Rated, but would probably qualify for PG
Date: March 2007
Where seen: Landmark E-Street Cinema, Washington DC, 4:30 April 1, 2007, show sold out in advance.

As far back as 1984 filmmaker Gronig had sought permission to film the life of the monastic order of the Carthusians in the French Alps, at their Chartreuse Monastery, a layered edifice with stone four-story dorms and other buildings built on a mountainside. The order gave him permission around 2000, but he had to live there according to the order’s ascetic rules, and film without artificial light, and little dialogue.

So this is a “reality film” with a glimpse of the everyday life of the monks, as winter moves into spring. There are a lot of still shots, and some abstract impressions in Super 8 that look like Renoirs, blended in with stunning, usually snowbound (almost the mood for Stephen King) mountain scenery, turning into the natural greenery of spring, all surrounding the simple life of the monks. The men, ranging from mid 20s to probably 80s, at least one African, are often shown in head shots, or doing simple tasks, sometimes with excruciating detail, to the point that the filming looses focus because the camera is just too close for the natural lighting conditions. You see all kinds of everyday things, ranging from feeding cats to feeding the men in their rooms through port holes. You see some fun, like the men hiking and then skiing without real skis. You see the men prayers. And this gets us to the film’s message, if any.

Gronig indulges us with quotes from their prayers, in French, German and English. It is interesting that the German and English look much more alike than either does to French. He repeats the same aphorisms many times, especially the one about being “seduced” by God, and about giving up everything for Christ. So we are left wondering if this is also Gronig’s personal message.

The men live a life of simplicity but also conformity. In one dinner scene they refer to themselves as a “family.” There is a barbering scene where the heads are cropped into monastic (rather military) buzzcuts, and one tender scene where the young monk gives an old blink monk a backrub with medicinal salve. Of course, one has to respect the religious commitment at face value. But it is inescapable that these men avoid a life of traditional male competition for lineage or some kind of individually expressive success. They lead lives of limited but very focused emotions. Devotion to God in a monastic environment, with very little consumption, at least avoids the emotions involved in meeting the real needs of people in an open society.

The film has no orchestral music soundtrack, as that was prohibited by the monks. The only music is their chanting, a cappella, on occasion.

Will this "reality film" be in line for best documentary for the 2007 Oscars?

No comments: