Well, as I mentioned before, my goal at this year’s TIFF is to uncover the gems that might not otherwise be seen in American movie theaters, films I can get behind and hopefully program for my own festival in late March and early April. Well, I have stuck to my guns. Despite numerous temptations to stray from my mission to a) skip any film that I know will be coming out before 2006 and b) avoid the big, undistributed indies that I will be seeing at the NYFF in a couple of weeks, I have held true to my mission. Instead of screenings of Oliver Twist, A History of Violence, Corpse Bride and Brokeback Mountain (all of which will be opening before Christmas), I have spent the first three days of the festival visiting other films that may have travelled under the radar. Today, however, I hit a wall. While bypassing some of the big fish to see the little ones, I have found hardly anything that I found moving or compelling as material for programming.
Sure, yesterday there was the modestly charming Marock, which plays like a cross between an Muslim vs Jew version of Romeo and Juliet, a euro-trash version of Rebel Without A Cause and an episode of Casablanca 90210. Nothing I haven’t seen elsewhere, but it had its moments. Then there was today’s douple dip of French vanilla; Douches Froides, which will enlighten audiences not aware of the homoerotic undertones found in the sport of judo, and the mind-bogglingly problematic L’Annulaire about which, despite amazing photography, the less said, the better. The day’s most troubling film was the highly-anticipated Entre ses mains which hovered perilously between a serial killer farce and a serious thriller. Casting Benoît Poelvoorde as the suspiciously creepy stalker didn’t help matters; it’s hard enough to forget his amazing performance in the classic Man Bites Dog without the director dangling his face as another potential murderer. The casting became too loaded, and the (in)actions of the film’s heroine were so absurd that by the time the plot was resolved, the tension had been broken by the sharp pangs of improbability. Unfortunately, despite some very strong performances and polished filmmaking, the story and direction fail to find the proper tone and the film fails to satisfy.
Only one film has really captivated me so far; Philip Groening’s Into Great Silence, a three hour exploration of the rituals of daily life at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France. The monks have taken an oath of silence, so needless to say (no pun intended) there is very little dialogue in the film. Instead, the sounds of monastic living abound; bells tolling, floorboards creaking, prayers being chanted, and fires crackling in tiny aluminum stoves. The film succeeds beautifully in capturing the rhythm and repetition of the monks’ days while never attempting to delve into psychology. We never know why any monk has chosen the monastic life, what his opinions about religious life are, how the monks feel about one another outside their own individual prayers and duties. Instead, we simply move in their midst, and Groening’s camera is well suited to the task, oscillating between bright light and haunting darkness, close ups of faces and medium shots of activity, and beautiful long takes of the monastery’s exteriors and deeply focused interiors.
Groening captures the rhythm of routine by following its patterns in the film’s editing, and after an initial hour of struggle with the absolute quiet on screen, I found myself completely absorbed in my own thoughts; analyzing my relationship to the images, to the discipline of the lifestyle, to the issues of religious devotion. You could hear every sound in the theater and I don’t think I am exaggerating by saying that the movie theater became an extension of the monastic space; every rustling of a candy wrapper, a cough, the air conditioner turning itself off and on, conversation in the projection booth; the world of the theater literally shared physical space with the projected monastery. Bazin might have wept.
The truth is, I didn’t want any dialogue. Here was a film that gives the viewer complete freedom to engage the images and create meaning for one’s self by allowing space and time for thinking. But there are moments of dialogue; the monks pray and chant, and on Sundays they are allowed a communal meal after which they stroll together outside the monastery’s walls. This allows for two of the film’s best moments; when the monks finally do talk, they choose to discuss the relative value of hand washing. In another sojurn, we see a group of monks sledding down an Alpine mountainside in a glorious long shot.
Do Trappists wash their hands?: Monks finally get to gossip in Philip Groening’s Into Great Silence
I found the film to be a wonderful comfort from other non-fiction films that try so hard to force a narrative together and approximate real life experience, and blessed relief from most of the films I have seen so far at TIFF. After experiencing Into Great Silence, a film that makes Diary of a Country Priest seem as kinetic as Kill Bill vol. 1, a calm descended over me as did a jealous urge to slow down my own life, discipline myself to appreciate silent concentration, and a longing for my own rituals back home. After a couple of days of mediocre stories, who would have thought that the perfect remedy would be no story at all?