Minimal Monastic Meditations

April 11, 2007

I don’t watch films. I don’t own a television and have never really understood the attraction of going to the cinema. Julie and I do occasionally make the trip to see something that she particularly wants to watch, but in general my life passes by without being distracted by movies. From time to time I buy DVDs of things that look interesting and I watch them on my computer, but these moments are rare. The recent influx of audio/visual music releases such as the AVVA disc have caused me to try and sit and watch a little more frequently of late, but even these attempts have mainly proved pretty difficult experiences for me.

So it came as a surprise to me when not only did I go and book tickets to see a film all by myself, but also when I found myself really enjoying the film a great deal. Die Grosse Stille, a film by Philip Gröning consists of three hours that tell the story of the everyday life of the Grand Chartreuse order of monks, housed in an ancient monastery tucked away amongst the French Alps. On the surface, given my intense distaste for organised religon and my disinterest in the medium of film, that description wouldn’t normally inspire me much, but this film is very different.

Die Grosse Stille translates as Into Great Silence. The film contains no naration, no musical soundtrack and no ‘plot’ beyond capturing the monks going about their day to day life. So the sounds that fill the three hours of Gröning’s film are the natural sounds that fill the halls and corridors of the monastery, close to silent, with every closing of a door, turning of the page in a prayer book amplified not only around the ancient building, but also around the ICA screening room in which I sat with about a hundred other captivated watchers taking in the film. There is very little spoken word in the film, and most of the human voices heard belong to the occasional Gregorian chant of the monks.

Visually the film is very beautiful. Everything is shot very slowly, with every last detail captured and focussed upon. Events are allowed to unfold at their natural pace, and in the coccooned isolation of the monastery it feels as if things are allowed to take longer than usual, there is no stress, no hurry, just a group of men going about the same things they do every day. Simplistic occurences such as sitting down to eat a meal are followed carefully, the rituals of preparation and prayer allowed to take their course silently, and the tiniest of details such as snowflakes falling past the window become amplified in your mind. There is no harsh artificial lighting to be found, Gröning took his time making the film throughout several seasons but always using what natural light was available, so the film has a dark, hushed look to it to match the lack of additional sound.

I was recommended to watch this film by David Lacey, a good friend and man of great taste over in Dublin when I visited back in February. He had just watched the film, and despite knowing my complete disinterest in the medium urged me to watch it, telling me it would be right up my street. Well he wasn’t wrong. Sitting watching Die Grosse Stille reminded me a lot of attending quiet concerts of music, the focus amongst the audience was remarkable, there was no unravelling of noisy sweet wrappers, no kids running about the aisles, people slipping off to the toilet did it quickly and quietly, the entire experience took place in a state of meditative calm.

The religous elements of the film didn’t bother me so much whilst watching. the title Into Great Silence refers to the state of muted reverence that the monks enter whilst in the monastery, and the prayer, the chanting and the religous rituals are not hidden from the viewer. Somehow though I found myself respecting the monks’ gentle way of life more than I got angry about the silliness of their devotion. The act of self control and their dedication to a restrained, ritualistic lifestyle actually impressed me a great deal, and this austerity when linked to the beauty of the filmwork is enough to ensure I seek out the DVD when it appears soon, though I would suspect the experience of watching at home will come nowhere near matching the atmosphere of experiencing Die Grosse Stille in a cinema.

if it the film shows near you soon I thoroughly recommend you dont miss out. More information can be found here:

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