Combustible Celluloid
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Written by: Philip Gršning
Directed by: Philip Gršning
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, English and Latin with English subtitles
Running Time: 164
Date: 03/16/2007

Into Great Silence (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Monk Raking

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some folks will call it "meditative," others will call it "slow." Either way, Philip Gröning's extraordinary new documentary Into Great Silence, about Carthusian monks living in a charterhouse in the French Alps, beautifully bucks the trend of so many recent documentaries.

It contains no talking heads or clips and not one sociopolitical issue is explored. The film merely shows the monks going about their daily business: praying, chanting, caring for gardens, shoveling snow, sawing firewood, cooking, eating, etc. It runs just over two hours and 45 minutes and I wouldn't be surprised if no more than two hundred words are spoken throughout.

Gröning actually encourages viewers' minds to wander during his long, deliberate images. He intends us to ponder the lives of the monks, or to ponder our own existence and mortality. In that, Gröning likes to repeat certain images, such as the chores, or the monks' solitary eating while looking out their sun-filled windows. Certainly he repeats the same printed passages, especially one about being seduced by God and one about giving up everything one has.

Viewers will probably attach themselves to one face in particular, a black man who is inducted into the order during the film. We see him doing his chores, and we can't help wondering about him. What's his story? How does he learn his duties? Does he have any regrets? Gröning shoots using all natural light, and the results are striking, usually a single square or point of light serves the entire frame. His soundtrack is equally spare, forgoing any outside musical score, and instead utilizing the scrape of shoes, the rhythm of chores, and especially the monks' chanting.

The director waited nearly 20 years for the Grand Prior to grant him permission to film, and it was worth the wait. Apparently, the great "Dogme '95" cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Mifune, Dogville) was a camera operator.

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