Die Große Stille
directed by Philip Gröning
by Alex Jackson I actually saw director Philip Gröning's previous film at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. It was called L'Amour, l'argent, l'amour, and it was kind of awful, I guess, very long and very pretentious. But it was kind of mesmerizing, too, and the mesmerizing and the awful become inextricable--it's the sort of "bad" movie that only a true genius could make. Gröning's Into Great Silence is in the same insane tradition. I offer no intellectual defense towards either of these two movies; I don't know if I'm complimenting the Emperor on his new clothes or not, all I know is that I watch them and something...just...clicks. Into Great Silence is a documentary filmed inside the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery in France's Carthusian Order. Gröning passively and reverently observes the monks going through their daily routine, making little comment or inquiry as to the who, what, or why of it. Title cards containing relevant Bible verses--printed in French and translated into German, which is then translated into English--surface throughout the 164-minute running time. Gröning continuously returns to a sequence where the monks stare uncomfortably into the camera for some period of time. He repeats the image of a red light burning in otherwise utter darkness and the image of an airplane flying over the monastery. The film is repetitive and there's a question as to whether or not the repetition represents discipline or if it merely represents repetition. When we see the monks looking into the camera, it's astounding how homely and imperfect they are: one eye always looks smaller, bigger, lazier, or more out of place than the other. The monks have allowed some technology into their lives, and the visual presence of electric razors, microphones, and even laptop computers clashes uncomfortably with the medievalism of their garb and housing. They're mostly silent throughout the film, but once we hear them talk, we're struck by the lack of profundity in their statements. They chat about washbasins while out in the garden one summer, and near the end of the film an aged monk gives a hollow, greeting-card version of the meaning of Christianity. Are these men fools, or does their life of asceticism serve a purpose? Is there spiritual sustenance to be found in Gröning's film or is it a crock of shit? Providing no hints, Gröning approaches this material with 110% conviction, refusing to condescend to the material or artificially inflate it with false artistry. What you see is what you get.
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