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‘Into Great Silence’

by Kaori Shoji

Imagine a movie that’s not a movie at all, but an act of contemplation. This is “Into Great Silence.” Sometimes a prayer, more often a rumination, it’s a film that sprung from one man’s urge for silence. Director Philip Groning wanted to make a documentary about the monks living in the Grande Chartreuse — the Carthusian monastery situated in the French Alps — to shed light on the renowned Carthusian order, which is defined by prayer, silence and manual labor. He first approached the Grande Chartreuse in 1984 but the prior refused. “The timing isn’t right,” he said. Sixteen years later, in the year 2000, Groning suddenly got a call from the monastery, the prior asking if he was still interested in making his film.

Groning was allowed to bring only himself and one camera, and was also asked not to use any additional lights or camera appendages, ensuring the shots are completely without artifice. He lived with the monks for six months in 2002 and, when he re-emerged from the doors of the monastery and back into the ordinary world, he realized that it would take him a long, long time to sort and edit the accumulated footage.

In 2005, “Into Great Silence” made its appearance at various film festivals and went on to enjoy considerable popularity at box offices in France, Italy and Groning’s native Germany. Now the film has finally made its way to Japan and it’s an occasion for understated celebration.

The film has no narration and no soundtrack. Needless to say, there’s almost zero dialogue, unless you count the prayers (in Latin) and Gregorian chants.

And there’s none of the voyeuristic rush you’d expect to get from a project like this: The film invites reflective thought, not instant fascination, and whatever secrets the monastery may have, they are not revealed here. The only other time that the gates of the Grande Chartreuse were opened to allow cameras inside was to two journalists during the early 1960s, however they were restricted from filming any monks. Groning, on the other hand, was granted full access — he takes his camera into a field where a monk picks herbs, or to the kitchen where another monk prepares the evening meals. But “Into Great Silence” never focuses on a single monk, or a single action — it progresses much in the same way that a typical day at the monastery might progress: Monks pray, monks work, and, not being allowed more than three hours of sleep at a time, the rest of their day is filled with more work, prayer and meditation.

Running close to three hours itself, many will find the film soporific. There’s no coherent story here, and, as such, “Into Great Silence” makes no attempt to draw out emotions. There is no denying, though, the vast sense of relief and rest from watching these monks go about their day, their lives completely unpolluted by the digital flood of chatter and information most of us are exposed to 24/7. The beauty here is real, pristine, and it stays in the mind like the memory of a gift.

“Into Great Silence” opens July 12 at Iwanami Hall in Jinbocho. See the film’s website for further info screenings nationwide: