The Quiet Men
Philip Gröning Invites You To Spend Some Silent Hours With Monks Who Devote Their Live To It
Again and again in the documentary Into Great Silence you see variations on the same image: a monk praying in the cramped alcove of his spartan room. There's no action or narrative context, just a kneeling monk. There's no dialogue, music, or other sound--except the occasional creak of the wooden kneeler or twitter of a far-off bird. The shot lingers on and on till it becomes tiresome.
If you're patient, though, you begin to appreciate the near silence of the soundtrack in the darkened theater. You begin to admire the way the shot is composed like a Flemish oil painting, how the natural light from a side window falls on the shaved head, the clenched knuckles, and the convoluted folds of the cream-colored robe. You pass through the boredom and come out the other side into a state of meditation not unlike what the monk is experiencing.
There's no greater achievement for a documentary than to put us in the same frame of mind as its subject, and few documentaries do that better than Silence. It's not a frame of mind that everyone will want to share and not everyone will have the patience to get there, but the rewards are substantial for those who do.
If Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's 191-minute Grindhouse tests filmgoers' tolerance--just how much stimulation can you handle?--then Philip Gröning's 162-minute study of Carthusian monks tests the opposite limit: how little stimulation can you get from a movie and stay with it. Grindhouse divided audiences between the alienated and the exhilarated, and Silence will do the same.
You don't have to be a Christian or even a theist to appreciate Silence. The desire for quiet meditation is a human need so universal that it transcends the boundaries of any creed or even religion itself. The impulse is more natural than supernatural, and Gröning intuits this.
When he finally cuts away from one of his kneeling monks, it's usually to a scene from nature--big clumps of snow falling out of a cloudy sky, golden crocus blossoms shivering in a spring breeze, fingers of white mist wrapped around pine-dark mountains. These shots are just as long, just as quiet, just as boring, and ultimately just as transporting as the shots of the monks.
The Carthusian monks' Grand Chartreuse Monastery in the French Alps is renowned as one of the most ascetic religious institutions in the world. The community of 20-some men lives in total silence except for their religious rituals, their chanted hymns, and a few hours of conversation during their weekly walk. It's a world so strange that it inevitably attracted the attention of a documentary filmmaker.
Gröning first contacted the monastery about making a film in 1984. The monks said they'd have to think about it. Sixteen years later, long after he'd given up hope, the director got a phone call that they were ready. He moved into Grand Chartreuse for six months, following the same regimen of silence, liturgy, and manual labor as the monks, leaving only two or three hours a day for filming. He used those hours not for interviews that might elucidate the history of the institution or the psychology of the individual monks, but for near-silent shots that documented and distilled the daily routine.
A monk kisses a long rope and then yanks on it to start the invisible bells pealing. Pulling up his voluminous sleeves, another monk saws firewood for the tiny tin stove in his room. Yet another walks down a row of lettuce, patiently tilting his water can over each head. A young monk rubs a white salve onto the arms of an older one whose blue veins are visible through his paper-thin skin. All the lights but a flickering red candle go out in the chapel as the community begins its droning chants. An older monk with a long gray beard silently slices celery stalks and heaps them before the window where they glow like a still life in oil.
Gröning's purpose, he told The Boston Globe, was not to make the audience understand why these monks chose this life, but for each audience member to ponder why he or she might choose such a life. Perhaps few of us would devote our lives to so much silence and isolation, but many of us might yearn for a week of it. Or at least the nearly three hours this movie provides.