Into Great Silence Philip Groning

I would have thought there were things I’d rather do than watch two hours and 40 minutes of silent monks, but you have to hand it to Philip Groning — he’s made the phenomenon interesting. His Into Great Silence is less straight-up documentary than visual exploration of the rhythm and quietude that goes into the life inside the Grande Chartreuse, the main house of the extremely strict Carthusian Order of Catholic monks.

One doesn’t exactly experience a narrative arc — after an opening in which the silent clerics wake up, we bear witness to an induction ceremony for two new members that sort of acts as an entrance for all us outsiders. Then we’re thrown (if that’s the word) into the routine of the monastery, in which nothing is spoken and nobody acknowledges the camera. This could have been deadly in the wrong hands but our director is keen to give us a highly aesthetic (if extremely gentle) portrait; he proves brilliant at capturing the spaces of the monastery’s architecture and the figures who mill about within them.

I wouldn’t exactly call the film intellectual — it pretty much takes the order at face value and never asks questions (though the monks weren’t likely to respond anyway). But though one doesn’t really come away with an approach to faith or asceticism, there’s no denying Groning’s respect and visual facility (aided in part by Von Trier cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle).

Into Great Silence is never anything less than watchable and manages to pull off several breathtaking images; it’s worth it alone for the unforgettable shot of the monks filing out into the snow and up to the top of a hill to go… tobogganing. (Mongrel Media)