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.
You will notice, by the way, that when Benjamin is formally accepted into the monastery, he passes down a row of seated monks, each of whom rises in turn to embrace the novice and then silently raises his cowl, as if resuming his isolation even in the midst of ceremony. Part of the challenge that Gröning faced was to convey solitude as the essential experience of La Grande Chartreuse while allowing viewers the periodic relief of scenes of human contact. Of these, the most unexpected and exhilarating comes near the end, when the monks go for their walk. Fresh snow has fallen, and so the men, seen in a static long shot, trudge up a hillside and then slide down on improvised skis, or just their bottoms, with their whoops and laughter echoing across the valley. Almost as surprising is a scene of barbering, where the monks groom one another with electric clippers that dangle from an overhead cord. (What’s startling isn’t so much the technology as the noise.) The most moving of these quasi-sociable scenes, though, is the one in which one monk nurses another by spreading ointment on his limbs. The emotional warmth is palpable; the sight of hands on bare flesh, almost shocking.
I come to the aspect of Into Great Silence that may be called experimental, or even underground. In the days of the Warhol Factory, Parker Tyler wrote that the essence of underground cinema is to show things you’re not supposed to see. In the 1960s, this material was mostly sexual. Today, when perversion has been superseded by niche marketing, Gröning has found in the hermit’s cell one of the few remaining zones that the camera is forbidden to penetrate.
So I don’t think I’m merely free-associating when I say that a recurring feature of Into Great Silence–a series of protracted shots in which the monks sit one by one for their portraits–is a deliberate imitation of Warhol’s Screen Tests. For the unsurpassably worldly New Yorkers of Warhol’s little films, Gröning has substituted the least worldly of people; but his portraits of the monks still offer a suggestion of underground thrills, and even sex. “You have seduced me, Lord,” reads a text before each series of these shots, “and I let myself be seduced.”
This hint of the taboo may explain my feelings about a stunning moment that comes late in the film, during another of those leisurely views of a monk praying in his cell. After kneeling for quite a while at his bench, the man rises, then unexpectedly approaches the camera, looks directly at Gröning and smiles. In his expression I saw pleasant fatigue, and calm acceptance of Gröning. But there was something more, perhaps: a trace of cockiness, such as you might see in someone who was glad to have been filmed making love.
Love-making in the mundane sense, of course, goes unseen in Into Great Silence, though you might wonder about its chances of happening. Liqueur-making certainly takes place, but you don’t see any of that, either. I suppose the process is proprietary. But nothing other than that trade secret seems to have been hidden from Gröning, who was allowed to study the monastery in such detail that when he photographed the chapel font in close-up, he captured the surface tension on the water. Thanks to Gröning’s care, every tick of the anteroom’s wall clock, every passage of footsteps down the vaulted corridor, every fold in a monk’s robe or wrinkle beside his eyes or brush of his fingertip against a book’s yellowed pages fixes you with the force of an intimate revelation.
Here is a lifetime’s worth of spiritual exertion and physical labor, which has been compressed into the six months of Gröning’s stay in the monastery and then further distilled into a little more than two and a half hours of film. Rarely is time so intensified, or so pure; and if you want the experience, you need just a little patience. Into Great Silence begins a US theatrical release on February 28 at Film Forum in New York.
Although it’s called “Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker,” the Museum of Modern Art’s new film retrospective and media installation might just as well be subtitled “Tantalizer.” Granted, Kiarostami’s images are often beautiful, with their picturesque outdoor settings and graciously composed space, their pleasing recurrence over the course of a film and gently maintained distance from the subject. These pictures can be as quietly eloquent, as seemingly full, as anything Philip Gröning discovered in his monastery. And yet Kiarostami’s show of completeness is also a trick; his visual lyricism a counterpoint to underlying agitation. The crucial element in his work is usually the event outside the frame, the voice dropped from the soundtrack, the figure lost in shadows or night, the missing character, the unexplained motive. If Gröning, like Bresson before him, puts his faith in a contemplative cinema that might allow you to imagine even the invisible, Kiarostami enraptures you with vision only to leave you feeling resigned before absence and mystery.
The ambitious exhibition at MoMA, which incorporates a sidebar at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, offers you thirty-three shorts and feature films by Kiarostami, including the rarely screened conclusion to his great Koker trilogy, Through the Olive Trees, and prizewinners such as A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. These are indispensable films. Also on view: a gallery installation of the five parts of Five (2004), the premiere of the installation work Summer Afternoon (2006) and a survey of four series of Kiarostami’s photographs.
The exhibition will be on view at MoMA from March 1 through May 28 and at P.S. 1 from now through April 29. The exhibition will travel to the Berkeley Museum and Pacific Film Archive in July and to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in autumn 2007. For information on the New York presentation: (212) 708-9400 or www.moma.org.
Time-stretching, contemplative cinema of yet another sort takes the screen March 3 and 4 at Anthology Film Archives in New York, during a rare theatrical showing of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó. Thanks to a DVD version distributed by Facets Video, you could choose to watch the film’s twelve sections, spanning seven and a half hours, in the comfort of your home, with frequent recourse to the pause button and beer. That’s why a theatrical showing is better. The beer (or peach schnapps) is better left to the movie’s characters to sustain them through the perpetual rain in their dying Hungarian village. What you need is strong coffee, and a determination to concentrate on every bleak, mordant, horrifying, devastatingly funny moment of Tarr’s masterpiece.
Based on a novel by Tarr’s frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó is the story of a would-be messiah, or cheap hustler, or police informer (choose all of the above) who entices the members of a farming collective to leave behind their mud, their penury, their snooping and degeneracy. Boy, do you get mud, penury, snooping and degeneracy, in what feels like real time! Much has been written (some of it nonsense, I suspect) about the dancelike structure of the film. But what really matters about the exhaustive form, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, is that it allows Tarr to get things right.
For information: (212) 505-5181 or www.anthologyfilmarchives.org.