Last week, I saw the film Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s depiction of the daily life of Carthusian monks at Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. The advertising says that the film “embodies” the monastery more than it depicts it, but it felt like a documentary depiction to me, and not a particularly “poetic” one, but a somewhat choppy, herky-jerky, can’t-decide-on-a-focus depiction. (One critic noted the collection of potential screen-saver images — that’s how it felt to me, too.)
Most film critics, however, via Rotten Tomatoes, really like it.
I wish I could say that I liked the film more, or that I thought it was interesting, transporting, well-filmed. I can’t honestly say any of those things. My experience of it was multifaceted, but if I had to sum up, I’d say I was bored most of the time, partly by the snail’s pace, partly by the repetition, and partly because the activities and images didn’t seem to intertrwine convincingly.
And perhaps that’s the idea, to give the audience the experience of the monks, by filming some images and activities over and over, until the tedium is overwhelming. While I was groaning, “Oh, no, not the artsy image of the red candle again!,” the monks might be thinking, “Oh, no, not another bowl of wholesome soup in my cell again!” or “Not those relentless bells again!”
I spent the first third or so of the film carrying on an interior monologue in the absence of any plot on the screen. I wondered to myself why some of the images are so grainy and blurry while others are sharp (I’ve read since that the filmmaker could film using only the light naturally available). I wondered where their fruit, with those little fruit labels clearly visible, come from and who goes to town to get it, or is it delivered. I wondered why the filmmaker seemed to spend so much time filming a black man, the only one in the monastery as far as I could tell. I was thinking how being in this particular monastery would be like being in prison, with no dogs around (though there are feral cats). Etc. Etc.
It was a little like doing meditation but much more noisy, because my mind and body were recording consecutive images and sounds (there’s not a lot of talking in the movie but there are sounds aplenty) and working to make some sense of them, whereas when I meditate I am looking at the same spot all the time and the sounds around me are familiar. And, when meditating, the idea is to notice thoughts, images, meaning-making, memory, planning, etc., and to just let it go rather than to get caught up in it; but watching a movie is a wholly different task, in which the viewer hopes to actively attend to the images, sounds, plot, meaning, etc., and to hear the story in them. Films are all about following the storyline; meditation is about not following the story.
After a while, my mind quieted enough that I could absorb the slowness, the repetition, the images and sounds, rather than try to push the plot along. In a few places, I actually laughed — particularly during the outdoor activities among the monks, but also during the ridiculous (imo) chanting of theological analysis — and was mesmerized, as when watching one man methodically massage another — very wiry — man, and when looking at the men’s faces that were briefly and individually shown.
I appreciate the film’s progress through the natural year; I would also have preferred progress through the course of one day (maybe one per season) rather than jumping around among individual activities, communal activities, particular jobs of the monks (cutting wood, growing veg, cobbling, tailoring, cooking, delivering food, etc.), images of the monks, art and architecture photos, and travel and nature photos.
All this said, I realise that my life — which is very solitary, silent, and repetitious most of the time — would probably bore 99% of viewers if it were filmed as it really is. Living a life is very different from observing one.