Sunday, March 04, 2007

Et moi, je me suis laissé séduire.

On Saturday night, I joined several of my cohorts from Ciszek Hall at a sold-out showing of Into Great Silence at the Film Forum in Manhattan. The first thing I have to say about this film is that I loved it and that I would happily see it again. As I noted in my last post, Into Great Silence was produced under unusual conditions. After having waited over a decade to receive permission to film within the cloister of the Grand Chartreuse, director Philip Gröning was given unprecedented access to one of the most austere Catholic monasteries in the world. For six months, Gröning became an unobstrusive fly on the wall in the cells and corridors of the Grand Chartreuse, filming the monks at prayer, during meals, on walks and in the midst of activities both ordinary (such as chores around the house) and exceptional (like the reception of two new novices). Gröning's privileged access to the intimate details of the monks' lives came with a price: he was not permitted to interview the monks (though one offers some valuable spiritual reflections on camera) and he could not give the film any narration or a soundtrack beyond the sounds he captured within the monastery. To say that Gröning made the most of these restrictions would be an understatement. Into Great Silence is a truly extraordinary film, unlike any I've ever seen.

Into Great Silence doesn't merely show us what life at the Grand Chartreuse is like - it gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a Carthusian feels like. The film's lack of dialogue and unconventional structure draw the viewer's attention to details that one would likely miss if one were distracted by speech and focused on following the 'story' to its expected conclusion. Into Great Silence reveals a way of life that unfolds according to timeless rhythms, a life in which monks live in harmony with the seasons and dress, pray and work much as their predecessors did in the Middle Ages. At the same time, telling vignettes remind the viewer that the Carthusians aren't as disconnected from the modern world as one may be tempted to think. At one point, Gröning observes a monk (the prior, I presume) working on a laptop at a desk cluttered with bills that must be paid and letters that need to be answered. In another scene, Gröning listens in on the conversation that goes on during the monks' weekly recreation period (despite common conceptions about a "vow of silence," monks can and do talk to one another, though reticence is generally encouraged). The monks of the Grand Chartreuse compare certain aspects of their practice with that of some other Carthusian houses. Conversation soon turns to one monk's impending trip to South Korea, which shows that these Carthusians not only can travel but can go very far from the monastery when circumstances warrant it. I applaud Gröning for including scenes like this in his film, for the sense of surprise they can evoke offers a salutary reminder that Carthusian life doesn't always conform to somewhat romanticized external perceptions of how monks do or should live. There's more I could say about this terrific film, but I'll stop there. I hope that you'll take the opportunity to see it yourself if it should appear in your area. AMDG.


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