Bruno of Cologne founded La Grande Chartreuse, the mother-house of the Carthusian monastic order, in the French Alps outside Grenoble in 1084, and on the evidence of Philip Groening’s remarkable film, the ideals and mode of life of the monks there haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. (Bruno’s rule prescribes a combination of eremitic and cenobitic monasticism, with the monks living for the most part solitary lives of silence in individual cells but meeting together for services, meals and, occasionally, conversation and even recreation—an impromptu “sledding” expedition in the snow-covered peaks is especially memorable.) Certainly “Into Great Silence,” a wonderfully quiet, serene portrait of Carthusian life edited to reflect the rhythm of the monastic regimen, offers some evidence of modernization—under the circumstances, the occasional appearance of a bare light bulb hanging from a ceiling or protruding from a wall socket, or of a laptop being used to maintain accounts and correspondence (regarding the famous liqueur, from the look of the letters), almost takes one aback. But the film doesn’t dwell on such matters or try to explain them, or anything else. Its purpose is simply to evoke for the viewer, over its two-and-a-half hour span, a sense of the pattern that characterizes Carthusian practice and the deep spirituality that underlies it.
This is by no stretch of the imagination a conventional documentary. It provides no historical background, or even topological information. It offers no verbal testimony from the monks, except for remarks offered by one of the most aged of them near the very close—who speaks of the fact that he doesn’t fear death because it will bring him closer to God—the goal to which he’s devoted his entire life—and says that he often thanks God for having blinded him, because he knows it was for his benefit. It’s filmed by natural light alone, which gives many of the interior images an artistically grainy, indistinct appearance contrasted with the brilliant clarity of exterior ones. It uses no music but the chants of the monks themselves. It employs repetition to reflect the tempo of the horarium—most notably title cards that repeatedly offer the same scriptural passages and monastic epigrams at intervals. It doesn’t offer any sort of story arc—we see two novices being introduced into the community, and see one of them in particular periodically throughout, but the picture doesn’t tell us their story. We become familiar with certain of the monks simply because we watch them performing their ordinary activities—praying, of course, but also tending to the garden, or preparing meals in the kitchen, or cutting their confreres’ hair—or because they have especially memorable faces. But most of them we see clearly only in the groups of posed head-shots Groening includes as a sort of photographic punctuation.
One could certainly raise some questions about the “authenticity” of the film. Despite the fly-on-the-wall technique that suggests simple observation, for example, the mere presence of the camera had some effect on the subjects, as one can see on those occasions when one or another of the monks glances knowingly at the camera—sometimes with a smile, but occasionally with what looks like suppressed annoyance. (It’s like the scientific principle of observation affecting phenomena applied to the human world.) And there are times when the artistically framed shots of tree branches, columned hallways and floor tiles can seem a trifle precious. But there are many moments of astonishing beauty, and the cumulative effect is truly remarkable, like a wave that ebbs and flows over the viewer, or like a river that one steps into at various points in its course. It takes some getting used to: there will be those who never “get” it and find “Into Great Silence” a frustrating experience. But one needn’t be a believer to feel the simple nobility of the life impressionistically depicted here, even if one thinks it based on misguided premises.