Into Great Silence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2007, 12:00am

Into Great Silence

Starring: Monks of the Grand Chartreuse, near Grenoble, France

Director: Philip Groning

The film: As back stories go, the one for Into Great Silence is certainly mythical. It took director Philip Groning 16 years to get the film off the ground: having developed the idea of making a documentary about the Carthusian monks - whose religious order dictates an existence that prohibits material goods as well as speech - Groning approached the order with the proposal in 1986. The monks reflected on the idea and got back to him - in 2000 - and only finally gave him the nod to film inside the order's head monastery, the Grand Chartreuse, in 2004.

Into Great Silence is the result of Groning's six-month stay at the Chartreuse: a glacially paced and mostly dialogue-free 162-minute opus that renders vividly the monks' hushed lives.

The film was made under three conditions: that no artificial lighting was used (which would have been pretty impossible anyway, since they only allowed Groning in alone), that no music would be added to the film, and no voiceover would be used to explain what's being shown on screen.

The film is certainly a meditative experience: the camera stays with a praying monk for minutes on end, perhaps interwoven with sporadic imagery of the forests that surround the (walled) monastery; or the inhabitants undertaking routine daily business, such as chopping firewood, having their meals, or attending to paperwork. The tone lightens somewhat at times, such as when the monks go on their monthly mountain trek, the only time when they're allowed to converse. Groning captures their special kind of bonhomie there: among their lighthearted exchanges is the discussion of whether washing hands is one excessive habit too many in their discipline.

Although merits are many and flaws are few with the film, the question here is whether Into Great Silence works when viewed on a small screen amid the cacophony of the domestic environment. This is a film that needs to be experienced in seclusion - that is, in the darkened cinema; seeing it on DVD, while family members rush around and perhaps the noise of traffic intrudes, reduces the film's power.

The extras: This is where the DVD might offer more insight about the monks. The main feature's aura might have been lost on the small screen, but the bonus features make up for that - included here is nearly an hour's worth of deleted scenes, including an interview with a blind monk, and the process of making the Chartreuse liqueur, the alcoholic herbal drink that provides the order with financial sustenance.

There's also a making-of dossier containing Groning's blueprints for the film in 1984, audio and photo galleries, a guide to the order and even a video statement from the Vatican's Cardinal Poupard. But the gem is The Night Office, a 53-minute piece about the monks' nightly practice of singing lauds and psalms which are overlaid with images of the actual musical scores.

The verdict: A visually arresting piece that demands full attention.