Friday, June 26, 2009

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."


Blogger FlyingBubbie said...

It's a very mysterious concept to me, I'll tell you, opting out. But people say we do this, as Orthodox Jews, all the time. We say we're different, though, and as the drill is based on doing things, being active, maybe we are.

June 26, 2009 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Good comment FB. Here's my thoughts:

There is a command, Kedoshim Tihiyu - Make Yourselves Holy. This command, we are told, was presented "el kol adat Bnei Yisrael" - "to the entire congregation of The Jewish People."

The Chasom Sofer was once approched by a student who wanted to live a life of isolation in order to work on himself in a spiritual way. The Chasom Sofer answerd him by explaining that the reason why the imperative to be holy was said to all the people together was because, despite what many individuals think, true holiness is acheived through being a part of community.

That having been said, I think that within the realm of being part of a community there is room and need for private contemplation. This is an, oft neglected, major part of the picture. Within Judaism we are expected to do teshuva and beseech G-d and work on ourselves in private, as well as together with others.

While most people are part of the greater Jewish community, there are individuals, like the Vilna Gaon, The Rogochover, and the Steipler, who (while in their own way serving the community) spend the majority of their time in private service.

I haven't yet seen the movie. My understanding is that the life these monks live is not meant as a commercial for how everyone should live, but rather an example of a certain type of service that has a place to one extent or another in everone's life.

On a related note, lehavdil, people sometimes question stories in the Gemorah that feature behavior that seems extreme. An example of this is the story about Rabbi Elazar of Bartota who was so giving with his money that beggars would hide when they saw him coming because they knew he'd give away whatever he had (once he gave them all the money he's raised for his daughter's wedding).

The point of these stories is not that we should go to the extreme of the person or people in the story, but that we should be inspired to up the ante regrding that trait in our own lives.

June 26, 2009 at 6:24 PM  
Blogger Anne D. said...

I love your observation:

"A movie is always about what happens to you as you watch it..."

July 8, 2009 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I'd like to give credit whre it's due. That's Roger Ebert's line. Roger Ebert's reviews contain living wisdom that is rare in most reviews (or anywhere else).
In his piece on The Grocer's Son, he notes, "'The term 'coming of age' always seems to apply to teenagers. But you can come of age in your 20s, 30s, 40s or maybe never. I define it as
beginning to value other people for who they are, rather than what they can do for you."

July 8, 2009 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

That sounds like a very interesting movie. I'll have to look into it.

July 12, 2009 at 11:35 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home