September 12, 2005

TIFF Day 5: Into Great Silence






Into Great Silence is certainly a challenge for anyone without the patience for quietude and reflection. Director Philip Groening accomplishes an amazing feat, offering an intimate, surprisingly bright, well rounded portrait of The Grand Chartreuse monastery and its monks. Filmed over the course of around 4 months, we watch the changing of seasons as the monks work and pray, casually relate and welcome new members into their fold.

It's pretty long with a running time of 164 minutes, nearly all without narration, dialogue or interviews, but those who looked past this were rewarded with insights into their very busy (!) surprisingly rich lives. Most of their time is spent in prayer, or sometimes manual work, each attended to with complete devotion, energy and focus. Perhaps most revealing though, are the small windows into their personal lives: one monk secretly playing with cats, another late to ring the tower bell; walking in pairs through the mountain valleys, playing in the snow and, on a rare occaision, chatting as a group; moments of levity and comeraderie revealing the close bonds they share, though their lives are filled with seeming repetition, seclusion and slience. The tiniest smile, the sight of a Bic pen, the use of a laptop computer (!) each take on enormous significance, revealing a complex relationship with religion and modern life that makes us reconsider our own materialism, happiness, and peacefulness. Groening uses lapses of uninflected montage, close up portraits of each monk and most importantly, a single interview to describe the uniquely peaceful, happy lives they live. It comes as a bit of a revelation, though not quite a surprise, and once you understand this, the portraits of old and young take on new meaning, each face filled with joyful resignation.

By and large the best Q&A of the fest, Philip Groening was obviously very determined and open himself, using the opportunity to film the monastery to explore his own spirituality. While filming, he participated in prayer and chores, a one man crew, learning slowly how to approach his reclusive, but ultimately warm subjects. He spent a very long time editing and structuring this difficult, potentially meandering piece, and spoke very sincerely in terms similar to those of Walter Murch about the need for his film to find its own voice, structure allowing for the accidental, effort in hand with well directed faith.

The official film site for Into Great Silence,
information on the Carthusian order: Chartreux,
and the online store for their liqueurs (!) : Chartreuse