Friday, February 27, 2009
into great silence
Sometimes I think that art can never fully capture the beauty of real life. Other times I think that real life can never live up to the beauty of art.
The film I just finished watching, Into Great Silence, somehow managed to evoke both of those feelings simultaneously. This documentary by German film-maker Philip Groning details the lives of Carthusian monks living in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Groning lived in the monastery for six months and filmed the daily activities of the residents - their prayers, meals, services, tasks, and rare outside excursions. The movie has no score, no voice-overs, and hardly any dialogue. For the first ten minutes I kept absent-mindedly checking the volume on the receiver because it was so unnatural to watch something without any noise.
Watching the movie often felt like looking at a still-life painting: a hooded figure, bowed head, folded hands, a plate of bread and apple beside him, light streaming in through a nearby window. No movement, no sound. I found myself holding my breath at times as I watched, quiet and still, as if I could somehow disturb the prayers of the monk if I shifted my weight or reached for another pretzel.
Of course many of the film's scenes had movement, and even sound. Voices chanting hymns, hammers and axes striking wood, knives chopping celery, electric razors buzzing scalps, scissors snipping fabric -- the sights and sounds of a community living and breathing their calling together. Never rushed, never hurried, always methodical and purposeful. And happy. They were happy.
The film itself is an incredible piece of art - fantastic editing and breathtaking cinematography (especially considering the fact that Groning used no artificial lighting to shoot the film). But what grips the viewer more than anything is the reality of it. These men are not actors. This is not a shoot location, it is their home. There was no set designer or lighting tech who perfectly crafted each shot. Just a talented man with a camera and a desire to capture the simple beauty of simple lives to the glory of God, and the result is nothing short of amazing.
If you ever have the inclination and opportunity to watch it, my recommendation is to do so, not within the framework of entertainment, but rather as a meditative, and perhaps even devotional, exercise. It won't disappoint.