Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s three-hour film about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, arrived in New York to a great noise of general approval. All the critics liked it, which was a small surprise, and final proof, if any were needed, that films sympathetic to Catholic things can still get a good press. Audiences liked it, too, which was maybe a bigger surprise, since the film tells no story, includes little dialogue (the title gives fair warning), and does not even provide the kind of information one expects from a documentary.
Nevertheless, Into Great Silence played to a full house for two months at one of the city’s hippest independent movie theaters. The film itself does not amuse—and does not try to amuse—but the scene outside the theater before the screenings could be both amusing and heartening: the hipsters and film buffs stood in line with priests and nuns and small parish groups from outside the city; and one could overhear the eager conversation of people who had already seen the film, at least once, and were coming back with friends to share their discovery.
And just what had they discovered? It was hard, maybe impossible, to say. After all, if the film is “about” anything, it is about an encounter with the unsayable. The silence Gröning’s film captures and imitates is not just self-denial; it is also a method, a way of getting at something that sound and speech often obscure. With so little to hear—wind, bells, a single bee—the audience must begin to learn what the monks spend their lives learning: how to listen, and what to listen for. Among the passages of text that punctuate the film is this one from Scripture:
And the Lord passed by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:11–13).
Preparing themselves to hear that whisper, whenever it comes, is the monks’ first concern. Gröning’s film succeeds in showing that the real purpose of monastic silence is not to soothe but to stimulate, to alert the senses to God’s often quiet presence by scraping away or rationing whatever might distract us from it. The discipline of the monks is severe but not otherworldly, and it does not entail contempt for the good things of this world. We see the monks walking together in the woods around their monastery, the green valleys below, the alpine peaks above; they seem to be enjoying the natural beauty without scruple, just as the audience does. In what is surely the film’s most surprising scene, we watch a few of the younger monks traipse through the snow outside the monastery to a steep slope and then, one by one, slide down it, their outspread arms circling frantically as they try to keep balance. Some of them fail, tumbling down the hill head over heels, and then there is laughter, among the monks and in the audience. A vow of silence is not (or not only) for the humorless.
Last month in these pages, John Garvey remarked on the unexpected appeal of Into Great Silence for an audience thought to be bored by religion, if not hostile to it. The film earns this appeal partly by challenging the viewer, defying one’s normal expectations about what a film should do. Gröning does not indulge our curiosity and he does not fear our impatience. He probably knows that some of us won’t make it to the end. (The showing I went to was sold out, but there was a high rate of attrition, some people leaving after an hour or two, some, inexplicably, after just a few minutes.) When we say of a film that it’s hard to get through, we usually mean it’s a failure. But not in this case. What makes Into Great Silence so hard is closely connected to what makes it so gratifying. Grace invites, and sometimes requires, a strenuous attention.