No soundtrack, no interviews, no commentary…Into Great Silence is as austere as the life it portrays. Living with the community for several months, filmmaker Philip Groning, was granted unparalled access, shooting extensive footage of the monks at work and prayer. Filmed in natural light, picking up only every day sounds, Into Great Silence makes monks of us all.
Plunging in, the film disorientates. But slowly its rhythms dawn on you. From snow to spring to summer to snow, Silence spans a year. As seasons change we return, from time to time, to two novice monks. Groning’s camera gets close up. A film of textures, Silence studies the daily details of the monks’ world. Go with the flow and this is a film of unusual power. Lose your way and it’ll be maddeningly dull. Like being a monk.
Punctuated by peal of bells or plainchant, silence pervades the film. Cloister, cell, mountains, woodlands. Groning’s images are alternately both breathtaking and boring, quirky and confusing. Surreal moments – cloister cats playing with a teddy bear, monks downhill skiing on a day off – enliven. But there are no highs, no lows.
Not a documentary, it imparts no information. Introduced ‘three-by-three’ through lingering camera close-ups, we actually learn nothing of the community. A rare insight into a rarified world, Silence is a remarkable achievement. But the point is us, not them. Better than any gabble-heavy TV prog, Silence is quite simply a cinematic exercise in meditation.
Religious or not, it invites you to change your life. Afterwards, you’ll know how. But are you prepared for it?