The Silent Treatment

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

At first, the silence feels imposing -- practically deafening -- as we watch the documentary "Into Great Silence" and the monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery praying, reading the Bible or simply sitting in quiet contemplation.

But as we become acclimated to this muted atmosphere (we have plenty of time, as the film is nearly three hours long), something extraordinary happens: Our senses sharpen. The whispering of snow outside, the occasional clearing of a throat and -- sweet mercy! -- the clanging of a bell that summons these befrocked Carthusians to prayer reach our ears with a resounding purity. We may not experience their inner glories, but when we hear the monks' Gregorian chants, it's as though we have slipped from our seats into the back pews of Chartreuse.

All movies are about transformation, in a sense, as we focus -- almost reverently -- on the glowing screen before us. But we are accustomed to our emotions being marshaled along with music, snappy editing, special effects. "Into Great Silence" subjects us, instead, to a sort of sensory deprivation -- echoing the ascetic lifestyle of these monks, who are bound to a life of near-silent contemplation aside from weekly conversational breaks.

More poetic meditation than documentary, it doesn't serenade us with music or offer helpful explanations about this 900-year-old charterhouse or the centuries of tradition that inform its rigorous rules. It doesn't even reveal the monastery's geographic location (in the French Alps, somewhere between Grenoble and Chambery).

By luring us into their hushed world, filmmaker Philip Groening -- who produced, directed, shot and edited the movie -- subtly provokes us into an active state of observation. We experience the rituals of these men's lives, our heads craned forward and our breath held so we don't disturb their devotions. And as we vicariously participate in their daily rituals, we find ourselves, quite literally, at the ground level of spiritual worship. It's hard to recall a similar documentary that brings viewers so palpably close to that sacred experience. Even such religiously themed commercial successes as "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," which moved their audiences with special-effects technology and star power, seem brassy and superfluous by comparison.

With an editing scheme of rhythmic repetition, Groening helps us understand the flow of these monks' existence -- the cumulative power of ritual, repetition and reiteration -- as they seek perpetual communion with God. The monks kneel. And kneel again. Biblical quotations are presented, again and again, in intertitles ("Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced"). And chores such as washing dishes and shaving heads come in cycles, too. Over the course of the movie, snowy landscapes outside the monastery become sunlit, florid scenes, then misty vistas, before returning to snowscapes again. (It bears mentioning that when Groening requested permission to film the inhabitants of Chartreuse in 1984, they took 16 years to give him the go-ahead.)

"Into Great Silence," a 2005 German release that won a special jury prize at Sundance last year, is not all hair-shirt rigor. On weekends, the French-speaking monks take long walks through the alpine country, chattering away with an endearing fervor that brings us immense relief. And during winter, when they slither and slide down on the slopes using only their sandaled feet and behinds, we laugh with an almost spiritual release. These scenes are a poignant reminder that they're as human as we are. There is also comfort in the testimony of a blind monk who -- in the movie's only interview -- explains his faith and the easy channel to God he believes is available to everyone. His unequivocal contentment -- he's even grateful for the blindness that led him to this calling -- is an affecting message for audiences, no matter how secular. And we realize this movie has not been about zeal, devotion or faith at all, but simple happiness.

Into Great Silence (162 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema), is not rated but contains nothing objectionable. In some French and Latin with subtitles.

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