Into Great Silence Review

When director Philip Gröning first approached the Grand Prior of the Grande Chartreuse monastery over twenty years ago with the idea of making a documentary there, he was told that it would be considered and that he should come back again in about 10 or 13 years. That gives you some idea of the entirely different notion of time that exists for the monks of the Carthusian Order at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps near Grenoble, and it’s something that the viewer himself experiences to a lesser extent when they submit to the almost three hours of Into Great Silence - an almost entirely silent documentary that simply follows the monks through their daily duties in the monastery.

More than just filming these daily activities, Into Great Silence tries to capture the essence of the experience of what it means to live in an extraordinary place, and live outside of the rules and pressures that govern most people’s everyday lives. Its structure, its length, its subject, the manner of its filming, all aim towards lulling the viewer into that same contemplative state of mind – not necessarily with the intention of persuading you towards a life of religious observance as much an awareness of a more spiritual side to our lives.

There is no narrative in the film, but there is a clear structure and an all-important sense of balance in Into Great Silence. The structure is dictated by the one thing that is most striking element of life in the Grande Chartreuse – the passage of time. In the following of one season by the next, the growth of plants and flowers there is a reliance on nature itself to dictate order and structure, and that is a concept that is fundamental to the message of the film. Time is moreover something that the viewer will be acutely aware of over the course of the film, for better or worse – either you’ll either be astonished at the amount of time that has gone past almost imperceptibly, or you will find the length of the film to be almost interminable. Regardless, the notion of time certainly takes on a new dimension over the course of the film.

A sense of balance is just as important in holding the viewer and conveying the other essential element, and that is the equilibrium or intermediate state that is maintained in the balance of the physical and the spiritual nature of life in the Grande Chartreuse. Both elements take on a particularly heightened quality here and Into Great Silence strives to find a means to convey that impression through stunning landscape photography of the monastery in its breathtaking location in the French Alps, in the faces of the people who inhabit it and the monks in their spartan little wooden cells -quite literally like locked prison cells, their food passed through to them through a small hatch in the doors. Occupied in their thoughts, their prayers and silent contemplation, the film attempts to visualise the spiritual aspect of their existence there through dust motes in sunlight, in the very grain of the wooden furniture, in candlelight, in the misty air, in the rain of thunderstorms and in the falling snow. The sense of nature, switching between the larger scale of the Alpine mountain range and the small motes of dust in the air, also contribute to this idea of balance, of wholeness and harmony.

Although largely silent, sounds also play an vital role in establishing a sense of physical location and spiritual contemplation – the sounds of running water, drops of melting snow and ice during Spring, the tolling of bells and the chanting of prayer. There is not much else heard – certainly not a music score – and hardly a word is spoken throughout.

What is particularly admirable about Into Great Silence is that the film, through this barely perceptible sense of balance and structure, manages to maintain a complete neutrality with space for contemplation where each and every viewer is thereby invited to participate and bring their own thoughts to the film. As a reviewer, my thoughts are inevitably drawn towards structure, narrative, form and ideas, but other people might just admire the photography and scenery, others will ponder the human aspect of what it means to dedicate your life to prayer and contemplation, others may see the hand of God in all his glory in every single frame, grain and mote of dust photographed. Even if the film just provides an ambient, abstract space for you to lose yourself from your own concerns for a couple of hours, it still serves an interesting and unique purpose. There are an infinite number of responses to the film – and certainly boredom could be one of them just as much as transcendentalism – but for three hours at least, Into Great Silence takes you out of the world you see around you, and for some it may stay with them even longer than that.

Into Great Silence

is released in the UK by Soda Pictures as a 2-disc set. Both the film and the numerous extra features are presented on dual-layer discs in PAL format and are encoded for Region 2.

The DVD transfer is simply beautiful. Shot mostly in HD Digital Video, with some additional footage shot on 8mm (complete with original flaws, tramlines, grain and a colour scheme that is almost impressionistic), each of the respective qualities of the source material comes across marvellously in the transfer. There are limitations to how good it can look – the film had to be shot using only natural light and inside the monastery itself it can often be quite dark – but the transfer does it full justice, the image looking clear and sharp throughout. There is the occasional sign of cross colouration and some slight shifting macroblocking artefacts, but they won’t be evident to everyone and in any case, scarcely cause a problem in a transfer that is largely clear and stable throughout.

The audio track is only Dolby Digital 2.0, and this would appear to be the correct sound mix for the film, which is actually documented as Dolby SR. A full 5.1 surround track might make the film a more immersive experience, but I’m not sure it would be appropriate for what is essentially a documentary film. Curiously, some of the Additional Scenes and Sound Gallery elements in the extra features come with 5.1 options, but not the film itself. In any case, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is marvellous, full of reverberation and ambience, picking up the slightest of sounds and distributing them effectively.

Optional English subtitles are included in a white font. There is no great use for them – they translate a few lines of talk on the occasions the monks are allowed to mingle outside their cells, and the biblical texts quoted (repetitively) throughout.

Apart from some trailers for other Soda Pictures films on Disc One, all the supplemental features are on a separate disc and they are indeed supplemental rather than extra, since they contribute greatly to the background of what the film itself shows.

There are about an hour and a half of Additional Scenes, all bar one in anamorphic widescreen. The longest Night Office (52:18) could stretch one’s patience, consisting of a complete chanted mass with only the printed Latin score from the missal and French Bible texts for images. This excerpt has the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 sound. Shaving Room (6:52) shows an old monk preparing a wood-fired stove. A Summer’s Day (21:19) would appear to be an extension of similar scenes in the film, again focussing on one monk’s daily routine and book-binding work in meticulous detail. The Blind Monk (9:56) is an extension of the interviews at the end of the film. Chartreuse Liqueur Production (20:55) is strangely the only non-anamorphic segment. It shows some of the elaborate preparation that goes into the production of the famous Green Chartreuse liqueur by the monks where 130 plants go into a secret recipe based on an ancient manuscript.

The Galleries section consist of 12 Sound Gallery pieces, one for each month, each a couple of minutes long, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0; a Stills Gallery of 110 photographs, which are mostly snapshots and mementos; and a Poster Gallery of 10 international designs.

The Making Of section is mostly text based, including excerpts from the original 1984 treatment and mission statement for the film and surprisingly (or perhaps not) the film made almost twenty years later remains close to the original intention. There are other notes from the director on his intentions, photos of the cameraman and camera setups, clips (5:15) of the director himself living in the cell, filming and editing, a couple of photographs from 1986 and transcriptions of the texts used in the film.

The Critical Response to the film is covered through international press cuttings in their original languages. These can be zoomed in on and read and are evidently full of interesting facts and quotes (I was interested to see the director cite Tarkovsky and Bresson as influences in the Spanish paper El Pais). A press folder can be found in the DVD-ROM section, which contains English PDF files of editing notes, monks notes (actual transcriptions of notes passed between the director and the monks during his 6 months stay there), shooting notes and an Italian press folder. Cardinal Poupard, the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, reads a statement (8:11) and makes some insightful comments about what the film achieves.

The Carthusian Way Of Life provides all the strictly documentary facts that some people might feel is missing from the film (even though it is not main purpose of the film) – the history, architecture, tradition, rules and statutes of the one of the Catholic Church’s strictest orders, founded in 1084.

Into Great Silence is not an easy film to describe or recommend since individual responses to being held in a silent monastery for three hours are likely to be extremely varied and personal. The director’s approach however strikes me as the right one, with no narration, no preaching (but lots of praying), no music score to manipulate or distort the simple experience itself. And there is no doubt that the film is, more than anything, a completely immersive experience that when you come to the end, you will find difficult to shake off. You would think that the film ought to be less effective on the small screen, but that is not the case. It may sound pretentious, but it’s not so much your environment or the size of the projection that counts here as much as you inner capacity to be open to the experience Into Great Silence provides. Soda Pictures’ 2-disc UK DVD release is simply superb, doing full justice to the film’s qualities, while providing an enormous amount of interesting and worthwhile supplemental background features.

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