"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass 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)
In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Grö ning approached the Carthusian monks, considered the Catholic Church's strictest order, for permission to film their monastic lifestyle. They responded that they were not ready for him.
In 2000, almost two decades later, Grö ning got the phone call he'd been waiting for. He was finally welcome to come. And Into Great Silence was born.
Grö ning lived as one of the monks for six months in the picturesque Grande Chartreuse monastery, a medieval enclave built into the side of a hill beneath the shadow of the monolithic French Alps outside Grenoble. He carted his own gear, shot his own footage, recorded his own sound—all without the benefit of assistance or supplementary lighting. Sometimes his camera captures exquisite clarity; other times it registers barely enough light to decipher an image—and yet, regardless, each and every shot is magnificent.
This film isn't interested in merely recording the mundane activities of monastic life, but rather immersing the viewer so completely that the barrier between projection and reception vanishes completely. Never has a camera been more intimate or observed as closely. It becomes a thing metaphysical rather than mechanical, trading the natural for the supernatural.
It is a well-known fact that once someone goes blind, their other senses are hyper-sensitized. There is a monk in Into Great Silence who has gone blind and now threads his way through the monastery's passageways with a tentatively probing cane. His untrimmed eyebrows are so long they hang over his useless eyes like a feathered shroud. He praises God for his malady, confident that it allows him to focus unhindered on his worship.
In a very real way, the audience is like that monk. The brothers of Grande Chartreuse have taken a vow of silence, and aside from prayers, chants, and a once-a-week excursion outside during which they are allowed to converse with one another, there is no dialogue in the film. Nor is there any sort of musical score. For over two and a half hours, we simply exist as one of the monks, living as they live, our 21st-century polluted minds desperately trying to understand our suddenly hyper-perceptivity.
It is a mistake to say this is a silent film. If anything the absence of human speech reveals how much sound we miss. This is a soundtrack of sandals slapping marble, gurgling brooks, songbirds, the swish of fabric, the rustle of pages, the ringing of bells. So powerful is the silence that it seems to embody a sound all its own. One begins to imagine the noise light makes as it streams through windows, splashes across wood, reveals dust particles dancing in the air.
Director Grö ning captured the introduction of several new initiates into the brotherhood, including a strikingly beautiful young African, the only man of color in a sea of mostly elderly white, bearded faces. He takes his vows and visits the barber, where his head is shaved in a scene eerily reminiscent of a half-dozen military boot camp films. This simple act is one of the few moments during which there is any sort of physical contact between the men.