"Silence is God's first language." -- St. John of the Cross
Deliberate and subtly powerful, Philip Groning's decades-in-the-making look at life behind the walls of one of the world's most ascetic monasteries will grip you in ways that billion-dollar blockbusters cannot. The back story, Groning's dogged pursuit of permission to film the monks of the Grande Chartreuse (he first wrote a request in 1984, but wasn't allowed inside until 16 years later), is nearly as fascinating as the final product, a film which inexorably considers timeless questions about faith and spirituality, but does so free from almost all conventional cinematic tactics.
Eschewing narration, stock footage and title cards (save for a few necessary translations), Groning uses the most elemental of all narratives to drive his film forward: the changing seasons. Tucked away in the French Alps (also known as the Chartreuse Mountains), just north of the town of Grenoble, France, the Grande Chartreuse, is the head monastery of the Carthusian order (founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno), home to a handful of monks in various stages of the Carthusian life.
Groning spent six months living with the monks, filming them without a crew or artificial lighting. The images he captured are exotic and intimate, a rare glimpse at a centuries-old way of life that seems very foreign to someone who lives just down the street from a 24-hour grocery store and a few miles from a major interstate. How could any tolerate life at this glacial pace? To his credit, Groning refrains from editorially suggesting that the Carthusian monks are anything other than what they are -- deeply devout men who've given themselves over to explore religious texts and purify their souls in a way relatively few humans choose to.
For many, Groning's contemplative pace (lingering upon dust motes flickering in shafts of light, considering melting snow) will be maddening, an excruciatingly slow film that just never clicks into place. Those that give themselves over to Groning's sprawling, absorbing work will be enchanted, moved and compelled to turn inward, mulling over the lives and aims of these simple, humble men of God. What is perhaps most impressive about Groning's film is that, seemingly without overtly trying, he's made one of the most vital documents about spirituality in recent memory. The DVD
There are numerous sequences of startling natural and man-made beauty throughout Into Great Silence, so the quality of the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is of paramount importance. Billed on its case as being "created from hi-def elements," the image is largely crisp and clear, although the more lowly lit scenes are plagued by grain and a distinct lack of sharpness that many of the outdoor sequences have. It's a mixed bag altogether, which frankly, undercuts the considerable power of Groning's film. The Audio:
If there is more than five minutes of dialogue in this 162-minute film, I'd be astonished. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track instead pops to life with evocative natural sounds, be it melting snow or the haunting choral readings of the Carthusian monks. The natural, vivid sounds of the monastery are captured and conveyed cleanly, with no distortion or drop-out. For the few moments of French or German in the film, optional English subtitles are provided. The Extras:
A two-disc set packaged in a standard dual-disc Amaray keepcase, the first disc simply houses the film and its theatrical trailer. Surprisingly, Groning does not contribute a commentary track, although he does pen a trio of essays (which can be found on the insert). I would think, given the project's considerable gestation period and fascinating creation, the director would have a lot to discuss. Perhaps he'd rather the film speaks for itself.
On the second disc, the 52 minute, 15 second "Night Office" (presented in anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 stereo track) details one of the eight Offices performed by the monks during their daily routine. This supplement is presented in Latin, with a few English/French subtitles. An audio gallery -- 12 months of "natural sound" -- is playable separately in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 stereo; the clips range in length from just over a minute to more than six minutes. A photo gallery is included, as are four additional scenes -- "Making Chartreuse Liquor" (20 minutes, 41 seconds); "Preparing the Shaving Room" (six minutes, 51 seconds); "Summer Day of a Novice" (21 minutes, 16 seconds) and "Blind Monk's Interview (Extended Version)" (nine minutes, 53 seconds) -- all of which are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
A series of six text screens under the heading "The Carthusians" expound a bit on the history of the order ("The Order," "Monastery Architecture," "Rules of the Order," "Carthusian Daily Routine," "Spread of the Orders" and "Statutes of the Orders, Woodcarvings"). The making-of dossier contains a quartet of stills galleries ("Original Concept," "Notes from the Monks," "Cameraman in the Monastery" and "Shooting Diary") with a five minute, 15 second making-of video capturing Groning building a small fire. An eight minute, 13 second clip of His Eminence Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture speaking about Into Great Silence completes the set. Final Thoughts:
Those that give themselves over to director Philip Groning's sprawling, absorbing work Into Great Silence will be enchanted, moved and compelled to turn inward, mulling over the lives and aims of these simple, humble men of God. What is perhaps most impressive about Groning's film is that, seemingly without overtly trying, he's made one of the most vital documents about spirituality in recent memory. Highly recommended.