New movie offers an authentic representation of monastic life

New movie offers an authentic representation of monastic life

Rosina Gordon

In 1984, German director Philip Gröning had an idea to make a film on the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps north of Grenoble. When approached they replied, 'It is too early. In ten, 13 years maybe.'

In 1999 the monks contacted Gröning and asked if he was still interested. The permission to film was granted with stringent restrictions: no artificial light, no additional music, no commentaries and no additional crew. It fitted perfectly with Gröning's original strategy.

The entire project has taken 21 years from the original concept to the completed film and finished product. Die grosse stille (Into Great Silence), is an entirely authentic and sincere representation of life within the Grande Chartreuse monastery.

Carthusian monks are a hermitic order, founded by St Bruno in 1084. They live a life of silence, speaking only when necessary and during their weekly recreation - there is no actual 'vow of silence' but a spirit of silence. Their life is a life of prayer on behalf of the Church and the world. They share their monastery with lay brothers under different vows who spend less time in prayer and provide the manual labour for the monastery such as cooking the meals and gardening.

Into Great Silence has been a box office sensation around the world. In Germany the film ran for more than 25 weeks in over 20 cinemas and grossed more than 1,000,000 EUR. After four weeks in Italy on 44 screens the film grossed over 500,000 EUR. Most recently the film has been selling out cinemas in New York and across the United States and last year Into Great Silence sold out at its only screening at the Sydney Film Festival and as a consequence Dendy Films, the Australian distributor, has decided to screen the film nationally.

The film received the 2006 Paoline Prize for Communication and Culture from the Papal Lateranense University in Rome and the Special Jury Prize World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

But how does a film without narration, no film score and, at best, five minutes of dialogue captivate such audiences? Into Great Silence is visually stunning and aurally stimulating. The 'silence' of this film is nothing but a new world of sound, the tolling bell, the crackling fire, the majesty of alpine scenery, a world rich for a contemplative life.

The film opens in a monk's cell as he prays silently and instantly we are immersed in the meditative existence. As the film progresses we are drawn more deeply into the monks' world, the repetition and rhythm of their days. We observe their monastic life as they go about their menial tasks. An elderly monk cuts the cloth for their robes, one chops firewood, another shovels the snow to prepare the spring garden.

What is captivating is the tranquillity they exhibit as they toil. In the midst of their activities they stop for their prayers, in the field or on the balcony. As Gröning describes it, 'The film shows the changing of time, seasons, and the ever-repeated elements of the day, of the prayer. Faces. A very physical world (an apple cut, meals brought to the cells, a field broken). And again the monks praying in the choir. Both are very present in the Chartreuse: the physical world and the turning away from that world.'

We see the ceremony for the entrance of two novices into the monastery and follow their monastic development; we see the monks' night prayers and chant; and we are privileged to observe the monks' recreation - their Sunday walk and their tobogganing excursion. All of this is interspersed with close-ups of individual monks allowing us to perceive and study the serenity in their faces.

In the Director's note, Gröning observes, 'How does one make a film that, more than depicting a monastery, becomes a monastery itself?' Into Great Silence is not to be regarded so much as a documentary, providing an explanation of the lives of the Carthusians (those expecting it will be disappointed), but rather a meditation, an opportunity to immerse oneself in the silence and rigour, the prayer, the traditions and customs that characterise the Carthusian life.

The spiritual passages repeated throughout the film serve to adequately direct our mind. We are drawn into our own meditation questioning the monks' relationship with God, the purpose of their vocation, and consequently, our own spiritual life.

Philip Groöing moved into the monastery and lived with the monks for six months to make the film, although not all the monks were happy with his presence. By participating in the daily life and custom of the monks Gröning was able to fully explore and expose the rituals and extremes of their existence and consequently the film stunningly encapsulates the contemplative vocation, offering us a rare insight into a part of Catholic culture that many of us may never be exposed to or even be aware of.

Gröning wanted to make a film about time and that's what I love about Into Great Silence, the extended shots, the slow edits, the time to think. Amongst the rapidity, turmoil and commotion of present day living, it is wonderful to be able to enjoy the unhurried pace of this film. Into Great Silence offers an antidote to modern life, a reminder of the sacredness and beauty of silence and the need for it in our lives.

Into Great Silence will be shown in Dendy and affiliated cinemas around Australia beginning in mid-May. For more information contact Dendy Cinemas or www.dendy.com.au.

Rosina Gordon is a full-time mother with two children under two. She has a bachelor of Music from the Queensland Conservatorium and a post graduate degree in communications and film. She worked for four years in the film and television industry and has an interest in promoting Catholic film and arts projects.

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