You don't have to be Catholic to have wondered, at some point, what it might be like to be a monk. When faced with a particularly heinous traffic jam, an electronics store return counter or a pack of sniveling in-laws, the concept of silent, peaceful reflection in a desolate stone palace seems like a welcoming option. OK, so maybe it's not all it was made it out to be in that Enigma video in other words, no hot chicks running around in red robes, whispering stuff but you have to admit, the lifestyle has its appeal.
The makers of the new documentary Into Great Silence certainly think so. Director Philip Gröeing spent more than six months living with the Carthusian order of monks, who make a quiet corner of the French Alps their home. They welcome new members about as often as the Democrats take control of Congress; just to get permission to shoot there took Gröeing more than 15 years. His efforts have resulted in a practically wordless, nearly three-hour experiment in total monastic immersion. From the time the monks wake to their occasional excursions into the countryside, we're invited to observe their quietest, most personal moments, with only the changing seasons to provide a plotline. Into Great Silence isn't just a title, it's an audience mandate.
So it comes as something of a surprise that the film's pleasures aren't just for the pious. Gröeing shoots the day-to-day chores at the monastery in a hypnotic, naturalistic style: The sound of scissors cutting through cloth becomes its own orchestral score; rain slapping against the roof provides a play-by-play commentary. Almost every shot is bathed in natural light or candlelight. Practicing his own form of cinematic celibacy, the director smartly recognizes that the absence of sound, light and color make those qualities all the more precious when they do appear.
As gorgeous as the film is, however, it won't do much to shatter your preconceptions. The robes-and-incense lifestyle is exposed to be, well, pretty much what you expect: lots of wood chopping, vegetable cleaning and the occasional feeding of cats (the latter scene being this film's equivalent of a Michael Bay-style helicopter explosion). The images are laden with natural beauty and poetry, but no conflict. Some of the greatest documentaries have gotten by on less the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman could show you hours of footage of a tuna-packing plant or a donut shop and have you on the edge of your seat but perhaps due to the Carthusians' secretive, rarely profiled nature, you leave Into Great Silence wanting to know more about the men's backgrounds, and what compelled them to give up everything for God.
The movie's best moments are so joyous, they almost provide their own answers. When the men go on a hike in the middle of spring, they let down their guard and debate the pros and cons of other orders in what could only be described as a monk bitch session. And in the grand finale, the monks rush through their hallowed halls and burst outside as if performing a fire drill, only to head for the mountainside for a little makeshift skiing (still fully robed, of course). It's an exhilarating burst of absurdity, enough to make you pray for a sequel: Call it Monks Gone Wild.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, May 4-5, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 6. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].
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