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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Not Quite Golden
by Donald Levit

Striking visually, a non-verbal contemplation of time in itself and of man’s place in that dimension, Into Great Silence/Die grosse Stille is unusual but a trial for viewers. Sitting through the film’s close to three hours running time may be difficult for many of them. 

Filmmaker Philip Gröning’s project started as “concerning the moment of time,” then morphed into a reflection of that concern as lived in the flesh in an isolated French Alps monastery of non-speech so near absolute that birds don’t chirp, cats meow or dogs bark. A unique real documentary without narration, dialogue, musical score or a single frame outside the present, its characters are self-effaced and nameless except for novices Etienne and black African Benjamin, who becomes Dom Marie-Pierre. Visually introduced in sequences of three through unnerving, unblinking soundless headshots, all seek God each in his spare cell while remaining anonymous, although a few faces that reappear without hoods come to be recognized as those of the bearded limping gardener, the tailor, a carpenter, the lay resident barber, the monk with a scalp wen and an elderly blind one.

This is thirty-cell La Grande Chartreuse (from the massif), forty miles from the Italian border, one of nineteen ascetic Order of the Carthusians charterhouses in the world and best known through the name of its light green or milder yellow herbal liqueur “elixir of long life.”

Selected from a hundred twenty hours of grainy one-a-day forty-nine-minute cassettes, the film is “quiet” rather than “silent.” There are odd human noises on feeding the cats, the prior’s words of probationary acceptance of novitiates and his comments before a Sunday communal meal, the subdued boyish squeals at makeshift snow-sliding on a Monday excursion outside the cloister or, on another such occasion, puckish observations about symbols, passages skipped over in religious texts, ritual hand-washing though having forgotten “to dirty my hands.” Still, the late direct “camera interview” words of the sightless monk, to the effect of happiness within life’s difficulties and joy at death as oneness with the God of Whom “it is a pity the world has lost all thought,” come as a cold-water shock after so long.

But such seem outside the cyclical existence of these men who are seen checking slip boxes for occasional written communication. Creaks of cart wheels during meal delivery into slots (reminiscent of prison movies) or of ancient wood floors, of a handsaw or a footfall or chopping knife or rustling cloth, become eerily loud, but a constant is the unaccompanied male chanting of daily liturgy, Office hymns, prayers and responsive reading, stark otherworldly echoes among the limited angled light of silence.

Too frequent printed texts in French and German subtitled in English--“O, Lord, you have seduced me and I was seduced”; “Anyone who does not give up all he has, cannot be my disciple”; etc.--go with also overused time-lapses of clouds or stars crossing the valley heavens, of rain or dripping or running water, close-ups of mixed grasses, all belaboring the cyclical quality of nature and eternity through which a man’s passage is also a repetition of, yet merely a part of, the whole.

The contemplative monastic life, Western or Eastern, is a search for spirit, truth, peace, stripping away outward distractions to arrive at an essential Inner. There are of course no media intrusions at La Grande Chartreuse, one understands that the prior’s IBM laptop is for keeping accounts in this self-sufficient community, and the seeker spends most of the time along with his thoughts and conscience, his heart and his God. Between personal and group devotion and the routine nitty-gritty of assigned tasks for maintaining the monastery, even with hours limited, there is no downtime.

Nor within the cold precincts is there laughter, only two hints of headshot smiles, which must strike the uncloistered viewer as a grievous loss. While excoriating the greed, licentiousness and hypocrisy of some fourteenth century churchmen, Chaucer was kind to those brethren who humbly partook of life’s simple joys; Thoreau valued thoughtful solitude alongside its counterpart in company and, while presenting “purpose and piety” as outside time, went to the homely metaphor of fishing in the river of time flowing to eternity.

Into Great Silence is admirable in that its structure mirrors its idea as well as can be imagined, if in places somewhat heavy-handedly. In the final analysis, however, such an attempt to visualize the abstract, to make the spiritual physical, is not something one can easily watch in its entirety.  

(Released by Zeitgeist Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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