Into Great Silence
I first read about this movie in February 2007 when it came out. It got so little hype that I referred to it as "the monk movie" when I tried to convince friends to see it with me at the one art house theater where it played in New York City. The Time's review by A.O. Scott sold me on it, with lines like the concluding one, "I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call 'Into Great Silence' one of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others." Throughout the review the critic describes how the film maker remarkably presents the lives of these monks in a way in which you can feel it:
"Like the monks themselves, it is both humble and exalted. And, in its way, eloquent. The idea of removing yourself entirely from the world is a radical one, and Mr. Gröning approaches it with fascination and a measure of awe. At first, as your mind adjusts to the film’s contemplative pace, you may experience impatience. Where is the story? Who are these people? But you surrender to “Into Great Silence” as you would to a piece of music, noting the repetitions and variations, encountering surprises just when you think you’ve figured out the pattern. By the end, what you have learned is impossible to sum up, but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered."
That review prompted me to want to see the film, but it played all too briefly. I hadn't thought about it until Netflix recommended it. That Netflix computer program knows my movie tastes better than a lot of people do. It's a long movie, but I hope to get to it soon. The Times' review addresses the length of the film, "Only one monk, elderly and blind, speaks directly to the camera. Appearing near the end of the film, he muses on the nature of his vocation and the texture of his religious devotion. Past and present are human categories, he says, but “for God, there is no past, only present.” Viewed from this perspective — from the standpoint of eternity — “Into Great Silence,” with a running time of 162 minutes, is absurdly short.
I confess that while I want to like long documentaries, I don't always get what I want. After years of looking forward to The Up Series, based on rave reviews, I started watching it and had a hard time buying into it. Also, I'm a bit wary that the fact that I have my own spiritual practice, which I love and believe in deeply, may take away from how much I appreciate this film. More than one of my friends were inspired by the spiritual aspects of Eat, Love, Pray, but that book failed to surprise or touch me.
Still, I have high hopes for this film.
Roger Ebert also thought very highly of this film, ending his review with the following words:
"So, what happens in the course of the picture? As you would expect, everything and nothing. You get the feeling that whatever you witness has probably happened countless times before. Novices are admitted. A clock is re-set, then straightened. On one sunny walk, there's a discussion about the moral implications of hand-washing: how it should be done, and how much. On another walk, the monks slide down a snowy slope. Those are among the action-packed highlights.
But they are not what "Into Great Silence" is about. A movie is always about what happens to you as you watch it, and Groning's stated intention was to entice the viewer to assemble his or her own experience of the film by asking questions and making discoveries as it unreels. Sometimes these questions are elemental: What am I looking at? Is it day or night? At other moments they are experiential: What task or ritual is this? Where are they going? And at others they are more existential: What does it take to find meaning in the physical and psychological discipline of such a life? Are the monks happy, or content? What does the concept of "happiness" mean in this context?
Each of us is left to discover the answers for ourselves."