Cinema’s silent moment with God

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

If one word could describe “Into Great Silence,” what would that be? The film’s creator Philip Groning doesn’t hesitate when he says, “Monastery.” Almost a decade years after its European release, “Into Great Silence” will finally open in Japan this month. In an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo, Groning adds that he probably should feel strange about this time lag. “But, actually, it feels natural,” he says. “Being among the monks taught me there is more than one flow of time. Ten years — that’s nothing.”

Groning’s documentary shows how life is lived inside the gates of the Grande Chartreuse, one of the world’s oldest active monasteries, known for its order of absolute silence and a herbal liquor crafted by the monks from a secret, centuries-old recipe. Groning was allowed to bring just one camera with him, and was required to live as a monk during the six months of filming. “Into Great Silence” reveals a cinematic scenery breathtakingly different from anything we’re accustomed to seeing in films: The experience of watching it is indeed like entering a monastery.

The idea for the film came to Groning in 1984. After an upbringing that was “no different from the ordinary European Christian,” something in Groning’s 25-year-old mental landscape told him he needed inner peace. This was when he was a budding actor and filmmaker, and with the confidence of the young, he got in touch with the prior at the Grande Chartreuse and requested permission to make a documentary about the monastery and the monks who lived there. He was promptly refused.

“They listened to my story, and then told me that it wasn’t the right time — they weren’t ready,” says Groning. “So I took my life in another direction. I worked, I had relationships, I lived the life of a busy, modern man.”

Then one afternoon in May, 16 years later, when Groning was 41, he got a phone call.

“It was the prior from the Grande Chartreuse, who said: ‘We are now ready for you to come in. Are you still interested?’ ”

Looking back, that question seems loaded with a level of metaphysical significance and spiritual commitment that a 25-year-old may not have understood, or been ready for. This time, though, Groning had more awareness about what lay in store and what he hoped to get from the experience. He immediately said yes and set about adjusting his schedule.

He initially had some apprehension about the project after being away from it for 16 years.

” ‘Would I be able to do it?’ was what I first asked myself. But then I said, ‘Of course, I have to do this.’ This was my chance and, most likely, I would never get another one,” he says.

Another motivating factor was Groning’s desire for a change of scenery, after years of directing feature films, including “Die Terroristen!” (1992) and “Love, Money, Love” (2000). “I had been on the film festival circuit for a while and all of it felt great. But I also came away with a feeling of complete emptiness.”

In 2002, Groning took a single camera through the gates of the monastery — he was not allowed to bring any other people or equipment with him. The prior gave him permission to film the monks and walk the grounds, but only on one condition: Groning himself was required to live the life of a Carthusian, in silence, while filming and was expected to show up for mass and prayers every day.

As a child, Groning occasionally spent vacations touring monasteries (“In Europe, this is a fairly common thing,” he explains), and he remembered in particular “the serenity of the faces and the gestures of the monks at a Trappist monastery.” Like the Carthusians at the Grande Chartreuse, the Trappists also live by a vow of silence, and Groning remembers being struck by the way the monks seemed so different from the people he normally encountered.

“I think people living in Western civilization are aware of the importance of monks and monasteries. Even though modern society has evolved so far away from prayer and the contemplative life, we need these people and institutions to be there. All over the world, people know that instinctively — even if they don’t set foot in a church or a temple,” he says.

Christianity is already a recurring theme in movies, and monks make appearances from time to time, too. What did Groning think about the enormous success of films such as “The Da Vinci Code” (2006), which banked on the dark, mysterious and often violent history of Catholicism?

“Anything that’s mythical also lends itself to entertainment,” says Groning. “And that in itself is not wrong. But Christian churches have made a point of bringing taboos and rules to the forefront of their faith, and I think that was a mistake. They have misrepresented themselves. I realized during my time in the monastery that there’s a great element of joy there. The monks are in a state of grace, pure and simple.”

The hardest part of making the film was finding a way of keeping that grace intact.

“I spent six months at the Grande Chartreuse, and it wasn’t easy — life is made up of prayer and hard work, and none of the monks got more than three hours’ sleep at a time. I didn’t always make it to evening prayer, but the real difficulty came after I left and started the editing process. Anything I knew about dramatic structure, or any attempts to focus on a single monk, would have completely destroyed the film. I wound up editing for close to two years. During that time, I lost touch with my friends, family, my girlfriend. I completely vanished into the film. It was like entering the monastery all over again.”

Groning returned to the Grande Chartreuse in January to see the prior, and he says he realized that his life was now far away from the monastery. “I couldn’t live there now, even though I would have loved to — maybe for a couple of weeks. But the Carthusians don’t accept casual visitors. It’s far more important for them to live an isolated life and to honor God. And that knowledge gives me a sense of peace.”