the sound of silence

Watching Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (France/Switzerland/Germany, 2005) dovetailed nicely with my reading of Umberto Eco’s excellent The Name of the Rose, even if both are completely different beasts: where Eco’s religious murder mystery piles on the concepts and endless words, Gröning sticks solely with his eloquent non-verbal images (originally about 100 hours worth of them).

A documentary in the sense that it attempts to quietly capture and observe life “directly,” it lacks any kind of storyline to latch onto, no voiceovers, no interviews (with one notable exception) and no kind of outside analysis, instead opting to depict the band of Carthusian monks inhabiting the ancient, magnificent Grand Chartreuse monastery simply going about their unexceptional day. Or should I say days, which is more or less unchanging, and provides one of the film’s overarching themes that ultimately becomes the string that ties it all together—the cyclicality of the Brothers’s strictly ordered days, which accumulate into seasons, which amass into years, and then decades and lifetimes and finally a whole 1,000 year old religious tradition (as the bonus features notes, little has changed for the Carthusians since their founding in 1080).

Considered the Church’s strictest order, complete with vows of silence, Gröning watches the brothers going about their day, often in solitude, praying, reading, writing, or performing their individual tasks, be it cooking, gardening, managing the finances, chopping wood or even cutting hair (someone’s got to do it, right?). But the literal “great silence” of the title, while certainly solemn in an imposingly harsh, Northern European fashion, isn’t in the least sad but rather seems exceedingly peaceful, and to the film’s credit, its grueling, somewhat exasperating structure (nearly three hours of unobtrusive observation where very little “happens”) gives a sense of how this state of mind develops without ever trying to get the brothers to explain it or translate the experience into words.

There is never any attempt to establish some kind of enlightening interiority in the brothers depicted, but the humanity inevitably bubbles through the austerity, particularly in two all-too-brief sequences: one where a group of brothers trek through snowy mountain slopes and slide down a mountainside, laughing at each other as they slip and tumble, and one of the rare occasions when the vow of silence is lifted for a few hours and they sit in a circle and simply converse with one another. And what do they talk about?  Only the value of the tradition of washing hands before meals. How utterly trivial, and yet, one can’t help but feel, how extremely appropriate. This is a different world, indeed, almost a completely different universe, before now virtually unglimpsed, an enigma in the end much more beautiful than anything Eco can manage to accomplish in his fiction.

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