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March 09, 2007

Being a fly on the monastery enclosure wall: Into Great Silence - Philip Gröning

Posted by Richard D. North

Into Great Silence
Directed by Philip Gröning
certificate U, 2005/2007

At my local art-house, there have been packed audiences for Into Great Silence. It's an exceptional account of life at La Grande Chartreuse, the mother Charterhouse near Grenoble in the French Alps. At two and three quarter hours, its running time alone reminds one of the challenges of asceticism. With no voice-over, no obvious narrative trajectory and vast amounts of silence, the piece is a challenge.

And what's more, the audience rightly feel that they ought to reciprocate the stillness and quietness of the work, so this is also a bum-numbing marathon with almost as much self-control all around one as on the screen. Indeed, on the screen we had the occasional ricochet of a seat banging or a mighty sneeze, whacking round the vast church. Or we had the fidget of a monk adjusting his stove. None of that relief in the cinema, where we seemed frozen.

Is the movie any good? The answer probably depends on whether you are drawn to the monastic life. Strictly as a spiritual tourist, I find that I am. I haven't tried the life for more than a few hours or days at a stretch, and I have no faith either. But some of the happiest days of my life were spent in monasteries (and in 5 star hotels and at reggae concerts).

It is natural for a filmmaker to want to capture the Carthusian life (the life, in this world of confusing labels, of the Charterhouse, or La Chartreuse). These men live alone in cells which would do for a fur-trapper, or a prairie farmer, or a third mate. The obvious other comparison is with a prison cell, and that comes home as we watch a monk shunting a trolley down a corridor serving each monk's food, through a hatch, as though they were mink on a farm. (The food is served in a little interlocking tower of dishes, a "gamelle".) There is an intense comeliness to the monks' two-floor cottages. Each had a small garden - to constitute a sort of micro-cloister - and the downstairs rooms are by way of being workrooms.

These sequences show how the Carthusian's life is designed for maximum solitude. This places them at the opposite extreme to the Cistercians, whose life historically was as hideous, but communal. Actually, since Vatican II especially, both these sorts of monks have softened their regime. Carthusians - as we see in the film - are now instructed to go for walks together, and Cistercians are allowed more privacy. Carthusians always did have some communal activity: a few hours together in church every day, and a communal meal once a week and on high days. But the point is, this is monasticism whose extremeness is obviously fascinating.

The film gets very much right. It conveys the most peculiar thing about severe monasticism. This is that it is not neurotic. Or rather, if it is, the men are masterful at masking the fact. It is of course an open question, never fully resolved in spiritual literature, whether a monk is there for love and celebration and joy, or love and penitence and suffering.

The most surprising thing about Carthusians (and Cistercians) is that they are tough. One of the tricks of this movie is to get the monks, one by one, to simply stare at the camera. They have clear skins, and even clearer eyes. They look like soldiers. I suppose that means that they look like men who have seen a lot, and borne a lot. They also look like men you wouldn't cross: they look almost like criminals in that way. One might say, too, that they look like the ideal of the peasant or the seaman. Some of them permit themselves a dry, minimal smile, and those are very enigmatic moments. There is a great, very brief sequence, where we see some of them sliding down an Alp on their bums. Thank goodness for it.

We are drifting inevitably toward one of the features of monasticism which has always appealed most to me. The obvious word, and it will have to do, is authenticity. I would add that this has to do with the self-sufficiency of the life, except that the term has been high-jacked by pseudo-peasants. But still, it's best to admit the conundrum.

It is very hard not to be moved by the plainness of everything in the monastery: its fitness for purpose. And then there is the rhythm and sound of everything. An old monk cuts cloth in an attic room, for the next generation of habits. His scissors cut through the fat rough-weave like a boot scrunching through fresh snow. There is a box of buttons, massed like skulls in a charnel house, and they presumably likewise speak of previous generations of monks. The monks' new laundry is a stack whose arrangement looks as though it is ordained by tradition, and tied with heavy cord like an old-fashioned parcel. There is quite a heated discussion at one point as to the value of a bit of ritual, and several men say that its practical point isn't the point. And it's like that with the monks' vegetable-growing and all the rest. Sensible monks don't seriously believe that they are self-sufficient: but they do think the very motions of peasant activity - its redundant simplicities - are poetic and even sacramental.

These monks are men, and very male men at that. They minister to each brusquely and silently but not without tenderness. There was a fabulous sequence in which a young monk is sawing and then chopping wood. The handling of the saw, and even more the wielding of the axe, was forceful and perhaps positively violent. There was not a single moment of goofiness, of mushiness, in the whole piece.

One character in the film seems to be a fairly simple-minded odd-job monk (he won't probably know or mind if I've got that wrong). It happens that 20-odd years ago I was shown great kindness by an old boy of more or less that kind at Parkminster, Britain's only working Charterhouse. My temporary friend and guide seemed the perfect embodiment of a very old tradition of the monastery offering a mater-of-fact solution to the problem of providing a useful institutional life to men who might not thrive outside.

But is the film any good, really? In one very big sense, it's quite useless, and perhaps was bound to be. The purpose of all the oddities and extremities of the monastic life is wholly interior, and the camera can't go there. Interviews might have helped, and there is only one very short one right at the end of the film. However, even interviews wouldn't necessarily have worked since monks are not much better than anyone else at talking about the spiritual life, and especially the silent one. So we could have had an ordinary documentary which might not much have enlightened us, or the extraordinary piece we did get, which did at least let us be something of a fly on the enclosure wall.

Richard D. North's Fools For God, an account of Christian monasticism (Collins, 1986) is available for free download at More recently Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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