A transcendental piece of filmmaking that takes the stoical, observational approach of documentarian Frederick Wiseman and adds a painterly visual aesthetic, Into Great Silence zooms in on a French monastery and the shaven-headed monks who go about their days working, praying and living a life devoted to God.
The sprawling stone charter house of the Carthusian Order - founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084 - is situated in a high valley of the Alps, ringed by jagged peaks and a universe of sky. Philip Gröning, a German filmmaker, was granted permission to spend six months in this serene enclave, training his camera on the monks as they gather in prayer, prepare meals, plant vegetables, induct new members, and even feed (and tease) the monastery's cats.
It is almost 20 minutes into this two-hour, 49-minute experience before a human voice is heard. The soundtrack is pure and simple: the rustle of robes, the tolling of bells, the incantations of worship. The documentary moves to the rhythms of its subjects' lives; some shots are taken through half-open doors, others find a bowl of fruit on a window sill, or a cup of tea on a table, captured like a Rembrandt still life. Gröning offers a series of long, silent close-ups of members of the brotherhood - their unblinking faces, varied in age and character, speak volumes.
Stillness, in fact, is very much what Into Great Silence is about. This beautiful, unfolding film is an antidote to the high-velocity, maximum-volume world most of us find ourselves immersed in, offering a glimpse into a rigorously spiritual alternative. Its calmness, its reflection, is full of allure.
Into Great Silence ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed and photographed by Philip Gröning, distributed by Zeitgeist Films. In French and Latin, with subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating
Playing at: Ritz FiveEndText