Much of the discussion surrounding “Into Great Silence,” detailing the daily rituals of the monks inhabiting the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, is sure to focus on how Phillip Groning‘s nearly three-hour documentary provides a window into a rarely seen spiritual world. It does perform this function, and admirably, but not for the purposes of providing clarity – the end result leaves a sense of monastic existence more exotic and otherworldly than one could imagine. It’s almost as if Groning, having lived alongside the brothers and participated in their rituals for six months, was left by the experience disinclined to hew to any standards of linear narrativity when constructing his film, drifting instead towards an impressionistic wash of images and, yes, sounds that are often impenetrable, but always seductive. This is all the better for audiences, as his eccentric take, which blends crisp digital video compositions with hazy, saturated film footage, and jumps easily and cleanly between times of day and season, transcends strict reportage in favor of a more cinematic approach.
“Into Great Silence” reminds me most directly of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa‘s quixotic near-masterpiece “Colossal Youth,” which played last week at Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects series – neither could readily exist within the current global economics of filmmaking without the advent of low-cost digital shooting alternatives, and both use the potential of amassing countless hours of footage over a lengthy period to cobble together extended duration works that don’t so much progress over the course of their length as expand in every direction at once. Chains of causality are not eliminated completely in either work, but they’re often hard to tease out, and that’s not in any way meant as a pejorative. Groning’s stream-of-consciousness filmmaking opens up possibilities: in one moment he can offer a striking time-lapse composition tracking the passage of the stars over nearby mountains through the course of a single evening, and in the next a Dardenne-esque close-up of the area behind a praying monk’s ear-the cut is unexpected, but it functions because Groning so fully replicates the strategy over the entirety of his film.
This recent strain (if a handful of films can be referred to as a “strain”) of immersive, experiential works has roots in Warhol and Wiseman, and represents a welcome respite from the mainstream, especially from what passes as such during this woeful time of the year. Though it’s difficult to be sure, the experience of watching “Into Great Silence” seems like a successful attempt at mirroring the kind of reflective, penitent existence of the monks it’s depicting. And the film’s leisurely pace leaves plenty of room to consider its most minute aspects-an early sequence of bell ringing hangs in the air long enough to capture swelling sonorous overtones, like a Rhys Chatham homage; brief “portraits” of a handful of monks in succession are scattered throughout; passages of near blackness interspersed with images of text on blinding white pages, leaving afterimages that nearly burn onto the screen.
But just when one starts to question: “Is this kind of filmmaking too easy? Is there a master plan at work here? Or has Groning merely lucked into material that can’t fail?” he pulls a trump card: an interview with one of the monks, one of the most unexpectedly conventional moves in the entire film. In his brief chat with the brother the filmmaker reveals that what’s really at stake here is life and death, faith and doubt, proving that, as simple as it may seem, this monastic life, and its portrayal in “Into Great Silence,” runs deep.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]