Sunday, June 03, 2007

Into Great Silence: A Movie Review

Into Great Silence has finally made it to Kansas! Bill and I made the trek today to the quaint city of Salina, with a population of approximately 46,000, where we attended the Sunday afternoon matinee at the Art Cinema Center.

Although I had only read a few reviews of this film, I knew I just had to see it to satisfy my curiosity of how it would depict the monastic life. As with The Passion of the Christ, Into Great Silence sounded like a film worth supporting, even if it meant driving a distance to see it. It is rare to view an authentic Catholic film at a secular movie theater.

This film was well-worth the trip. Into Great Silence is a deeply spiritual film that will touch the innermost depths of your soul if you permit it to do so. It is a lengthy (162 minutes), but hypnotic and spiritually stimulating story of the Carthusian monks whose monastery is located in the French Alps.

In 1984, German film-maker Phillip Groning approached the Carthusians about making a film inside the monastery walls of the Grand Chartreuse, but was turned down. Sixteen years later, the Prior gave him permission to do so. While shooting this film, Groning lived in the monastery for six months, following the monks around with his camera. While he lived there, he slept in a small cell, performing daily chores, in addition to shooting the film entirely by himself.

The title of the film refers to the silence that many contemplative orders practice in order to focus on God and to concentrate on the tasks at hand - living in the present moment, offering up their work as prayer and penance for the atonement of sins; offering up their lives as a gift to God.

The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084 by St. Bruno of Cologne. The Carthusians lead an essentially solitary and contemplative life, and, although they do not take a vow of silence, they are encouraged to speak only when absolutely necessary. However, this nearly dialogue-free movie is hardly silent, but speaks volumes to the soul.

The film opens with a picturesque, serene winter scene of the monastery against the backdrop of the towering Alps covered with snow. Snowflakes whirl in wild, but silent activity. Inside the monastery, one of the monks is praying intently in the privacy and silence of his cell. From there, we see glimpses of other monks performing the duties of their daily life, which are structured around the Liturgy of the Hours. (Each day they adore God by praying seven times, getting up during the night to recite community prayers.) In addition to community prayer, much time is devoted to mental prayer. The rest is divided between manual labor, study, and a little recreation.

Some of the activities we see the monks performing include: cutting material for new habits, chopping firewood, cooking, gardening, shoveling snow, and delivering hot meals to the monks in their cells. Every work they perform is carried out carefully, conscientiously, and silently, with love. Watching each ritual, task, and prayer that is performed, the viewer feels a sense of admiration for these holy men who exercise self-discipline and demonstrate their deep love for God by carrying out these "demanding" duties so faithfully. Abandonment to Divine Providence - total self-surrender to God - is a recurring theme throughout this film.

We also see how this love for God translates into loving one another. In one scene, a younger monk is shown rubbing a salve onto the skin of an older monk's arms and shoulders. In another scene, we watch the older monk carefully shaving the younger monk's head.

Groning also shows us the humorous and human side of the monks through a scene in which an older monk is playing with the cats as he feeds them and in another scene where the monks are playfully sliding down a slick, icy hill. Like innocent children, they enjoy the simple things in life.

The beauty of this film is depicted by the naturalness of the light in the scenes. During night prayer, the monks meet in the dark chapel, which is illuminated only by the glow of the red sanctuary light. Resembling the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the red light flickers and appears to grow larger, as they lift their voices in praise to their Creator. During the outdoor scenes and the changing of the seasons, the natural lighting is so beautiful, it is almost like studying paintings by Monet.

The flow of time comes through in the camera shots of a star -filled sky, the thin, wispy white clouds which seem to dance in harmony with the monks' chants, and the changing of the seasons from winter's melting snow and icicles to a blooming spring to the lush vegetation of summer.

An intimate view of the monks is shown when each face is revealed in close-up view. What I saw in each face was honesty, and a deep sense of inner joy and peace.

Throughout the film, scripture passages from both the Old and New Testament are interspersed, adding meaning and purpose to the actions of the monks. Some of these include: "Oh, Lord, You have seduced me and I was seduced." "Anyone who does not give up all he has cannot be my disciple." Self-denial as well as the joy of self-surrender are depicted in the lives of these monks. This is the path to true freedom and the way to true happiness for all eternity.

I highly recommend this film. I predict that it will be a spiritual classic and be loved by audiences for many years to come.

Excellent! 5 out of 5 stars. *****

Official Website


Julia said...

The movie made a trip to Oregon and I was lucky to see most of it. I missed the very end (impatient guest with me) but so loved it that I will purchase it when available. Wonderful review.

Jean M. Heimann said...

Thank you, Julia. I hope you do see the entire film - every minute of it is precious.

God bless you!

Dennis Miguel said...

Hello Jean! I am from the Philippines. I am teaching Religious Education in a Catholic University. Can you help us acquire a copy of this film for our college students to watch? Thank you.

Jean Heimann said...

Hi Dennis,

It is available online here