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Peeping Into a Monk's World; Pilgrim's Progress

6/9/2006 - 6:15 AM PST

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An Unusual Film Captures the Carthusians

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 9, 2006 (Zenit) - In a world bombarded by digital effects and surround sound, it's hard to imagine that anyone would give up a Saturday evening to go see a documentary about a vow of silence.

And yet "Into Great Silence," filmed entirely within the walls of the Grand Chartreuse near Grenoble, France, held to be one of the most austere monasteries in the world, has been generating interest all over Europe.

It was presented and practically ignored at the Venice Film Festival last fall, except for a few astute critics who were struck by the unusual subject and style. Upon the film's release in Germany, it outsold Harry Potter. "Into Great Silence" opened in Italy in March and managed to remain in theaters until the end of May.

German director/producer/editor and cameraman Philip Gröning approached the Carthusians in 1984 requesting permission to film their lives within the monastery. Sixteen years later permission was granted. Gröning spent six months living with the monks and the result is an opportunity for everyday people to witness the awesome commitment to Christ made by these Carthusians.

"You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced" (Jeremiah 20:7) appears a dozen times on the screen to help viewers try to understand the spirit of the Grand Chartreuse. Although the camera may have penetrated the walls, it is far more difficult to enter the hearts and minds of these men.

The film opens with snowfall. Big blurry white flakes fill the screen until the camera pans back allowing us to see the monastery nestled against the Alps. The camera then rests on the big gate and the outer walls of a world that seems inaccessible to us. When the camera enters the monastery, the screen is dark with only the votive candle burning softly red against the darkness.

Gröning then films through a door left slightly ajar, so that the viewer peeks into the chapel where a lone monk kneels praying. He rings a bell and darkness falls again as the monks gather for their prayers.

These nebulous or furtive images serve to entice us into following the monks on this inner journey. The director reserves the first well-lit and clear shots for a young monk's entry into the Carthusian life. The sunlit chapel reveals the small group of European men seated in the choir stalls as a young African and a young Asian make their final vows.

The camera then accompanies the brothers into a monk's cell as they all gather around to pray for the young man's vocation. We, together with the young monk, are in. Those prayers are the last words we hear for a long while. The life of silence is imposed on the viewer.

No voices cover the sound of scraping wood or chopping vegetables of shoveling snow. We see the monks work at their mundane daily activities, punctuated by moments of private prayer.

At last, reprieve. On Sundays and holidays, the monks are allowed to go for a hike and they may speak to one another. The startling aspect of this is how gregarious the monks are and what a lively sense of humor some have. They haven't chosen a vow of silence because of surliness or taciturn dispositions, but to "empty oneself in order to allow the Word of God to flower within."

Only three-quarters into the film are we allowed to witness the most intimate part of the monks' world, their sacramental life.

First the film shows daily activities, with long intermittent close-ups of the individual brothers as they stare into the camera. Then we enter more private realms -- the treatment of an ailing priest, a visit to the barbershop -- but we only witness the monks before the Blessed Sacrament or celebrating Mass after we have explored every other aspect of their lives.

This is definitely not a film for everyone. At two and half hours, "Into Great Silence" demands an intense commitment of the viewer, a tiny taste of the commitment made by these monks to give themselves over to this way of life. Lingering shots of falling raindrops or budding flowers allow us to gauge the different sense of time experienced by those who have removed themselves from this world.

As an art historian, I found it interesting that the director forced us to look at a single thing for such a long time -- a discipline almost lost in today's world of lightening fast images. As the camera panned away from the monastery at the end of the film, it seems as if part of us is still caught behind those walls.

* * *

A Trek for the Soul

When we think of a Michelangelo itinerary in Rome, we think of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter in Chains and St. Peter's Basilica. But beyond tracing the artistic footsteps of this great Florentine, we can also tread in his spiritual path. The road of the traditional Seven Pilgrim Churches ...

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