Carthusian monks do not ordinarily allow visitors into their charterhouses, let alone visitors with cameras; but when German filmmaker Philip Gröning asked if he might document the order’s founding monastery, La Grande Chartreuse, the fathers kindly said they’d think about it. Sixteen years later, having thought enough, they wrote back to him with permission to make Into Great Silence.
These are people who do not like to be hurried, or disturbed. They share just one meal a week, on Sunday, and speak freely to one another only on their weekly walk. Otherwise, for the great majority of the day and night, each monk studies and prays alone in his cell, or does chores at the greatest feasible remove from his fellows. You can picture the bafflement of these men in 1984, when Gröning proposed that his film would help publicize them. You can imagine how much Gröning must have changed by 2000, to be ready to devote six months to living and working in La Grande Chartreuse, handling all the equipment by himself and shooting without lights, so as not to distract the monks.
Because Gröning worked within these limits, you see in his film only the Vermeer light of sunshine as it rakes through a garden window and burnishes a cell’s wooden floor; the veiled light of a gray sky thick with snowflakes; the contained red fury of candlelight magnified through glass in an extreme close-up; the isolated, floating pools of light, separated by sheer blackness, in which the monks sit in the midnight chapel, chanting their prayers. Very often, too, light varies within a single shot, as when Gröning shows you a time-lapse view of an Alpine valley, with dawn fog drifting away in the brightening sun to reveal the distant cloister. By the end of Into Great Silence, after you’ve spent 162 minutes of contemplating the monks and their experience, you may wonder whether the better part of our lives is spent just registering the changing light. But then, if we were to stop chattering, we also might register the infinite gradations of sound you hear in the film: creaking floorboards, rustling broadcloth, a shovel’s rasp in winter, birdsong in spring and the ringing of bells every day, all day and night long.
By practicing a simplicity like that of the monks themselves, Into Great Silence sharpens your senses and, even more, your awareness of time. You receive no theology from the film, apart from a scene at the weekly communal meal where a monk reads aloud from the works of St. Bruno of Cologne; but gradually, you do get the impression that something immaterial has become present before you, in a kind of time that does not fly or drag or even pass but stays with each monk like a companion.
When time behaves like this there’s no story to give away, so you won’t object to knowing that the film begins and ends in winter, with identical shots of prayer, falling snow and candlelight. In the middle, as you’d expect, there’s a thaw, and summer comes. Toward the beginning of the film, you see two young novices being admitted to the monastery. (The more conspicuous of them is an African named Benjamin.) Toward the end, you see a very old and infirm monk lying in bed, preparing to take his leave. In the life of La Grande Chartreuse, these are big events, which you come to understand aren’t events at all. They’re more like threads in the fabric that a stooped, long-bearded monk measures out in his attic workshop so he can sew a robe for Benjamin–fabric that another tailor will someday use for patches when Benjamin no longer needs it.