Wednesday, February 01, 2006

J!, another J (who also teaches at Johannes Gutenberg Uni with me) and I went to see "Die Große Stille" last week (the film's English title is "Into Great Silence"). It is a documentary by Peter Gröning about the Carthusian monks of the monastery La Grande Chartreuse, located high in the French Alps (near Grenoble). The Carthusians believe in the contemplation of God and to this end they live in extreme solitude (hence the monastery in the Alps). They rarely talk, but spend their time reading, working, praying, and chanting Mass.

As a result, it is not exactly a chatty film. In fact, the entire "soundtrack" for the film is diegetic--that is, only what exists within the film itself. There is no voice over, no explanation, and no music (except the chanting). The film attempts to recreate what it is like to spend your time in repetitive tasks, contemplating God. For three hours, the film follows monks as they pray, go to Mass, chant, read, pray, go to Mass, chant, read, pray, chant, etc, etc. The whole point, essentially, is to learn about the lives of the monks not so much by explanation as by vicarious experience. Ultimately, though, because the film can only record a monk praying but not record what he is praying about the film raises as many questions as it answers (if it answers any questions). My biggest one was simply "what are they thinking about?"

It is an interesting film, although I think it could have been better if parts of it had been edited out. I found myself wondering about all the stuff that wasn't being shown rather than what was--I couldn't really help it. By the end, I wanted to know more about the times when the the monks weren't in their routine--how do they get food to the monastery? What do they joke about together? What do they wear when they sleep? That kind of stuff. And while I don't think the film is really interested in that sort of thing, I do think that it is somewhat manipulative of our curiosity about those details--it clearly attempts to demonstrate how monastic life is not, in some ways, so different from our own daily lives (we watch a Brother, at one point, call to cats to feed them, or in another scene the monks all go sledding down a hill) and yet it appears unwilling to reveal anything but glimpses about the similarities. Peter Gröning claims in an interview (available on the film's website) that he didn't want to make a film that "explained" monasteries, so perhaps this is a deliberate move on his part to force viewers not simply to contemplate contemplation, but also to satisfy their curiosity by actively seeking out answers to their own questions.

It is really worth seeing, especially if you have three hours to spare and any interest in monks. Or the French Alps--the setting is amazing. You can read more about the film here. If you decide to go see the film, I would suggest reading about the Carthusian Order before you do--there are a lot of details that make more sense to me in hindsight. Here's the link for the website for the Carthusian Order, in case you are curious.

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