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Into Great Silence

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Philip Groening's Into Great Silence is one of those rare films that I hardly know how to begin to praise.

As a rather feeble point of departure, I saw nothing released in 2006 that I would venture to compare to it, in terms of achievement. Perhaps even nothing released in the few years I've been writing reviews. A shortlist of most valued films I've seen as new releases in my critical life might include The Son, The Passion of the Christ, Spirited Away, and a few others. This film is of a different order than any of these, or any I might add to the list.

Into Great Silence is more than just a documentary of monastic life. It is a contemplative, transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning, on man as a religious and social creature; on the form and function of symbols and ritual and tradition; on the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring.

The film offers an implicit challenge, not so much to the trappings of modernity (modern technology crops up here and there in the monks' world, occasionally to humorous effect), as to the spiritual disconnectedness and social fragmentation of a world in decay, to the postmodern incapacity for commitment and sacrifice, to the dissonance and haphazardness of life as we know it.

Among names from Bresson to Vermeer that floated through my head while watching it, Kierkegaard came to mind:

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create Silence.

This film creates silence. Not just absence of noise, but inner stillness.

There are the kind of long, static takes beloved of many cinephiles here (and which I appreciated here as perhaps in no other film). The quiet of the monastery reaches out into the theater: the creaking of monstery floorboards, the creaking of theater seats.

But it's more than that. The movie is not just about comparative quiet; it bears witness to a silence that embodies purpose, seeking, openness, discipline, faith, commitment. It is silence that is avowed. No voiceover narrative tells us why. No intertitle explanations (except brief excerpts from the Old and New Testaments and from other traditional sources). No interview footage (except for one brief, remarkable little meditation from a blind monk, on happiness, abandonment to God's providential care, and the tragedy of the loss of faith and meaning in the modern world). The silence isn't absolute, but it gives meaning to the words, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many films are about God's absence. This film is about a God who is there, who can be found, when he is sought with our whole hearts.

The film makes no apology for the monks' dogmatic Christian milieu; the first sustained speech in the film is a chanted excerpt from a patristic treatise on the Holy Spirit, a catechesis in Trinitarian theology. The film is punctuated by intertitles citing Old and New Testament scriptures as well as traditional sources. "Unless a man gives up all he has, he cannot be my disciple," we are told in no uncertain terms.

Yet in this specificity is something universal. Or perhaps this specificity is communicated in a way that makes it universally accessible. Sophie Scholl director Marc Ruthmund, an atheist, told me that he believed in God the whole time he was making that film. Here is a film for which I can't help thinking that receptive viewers, whatever faith or lack of faith they may bring to the table, may just believe in God while they are watching.

The film is 160 minutes long. There is little overt structure, and much repetition; it wouldn't be hard to argue that a 90-minute version would be substantially the same experience. And yet it would and it wouldn't. A hundred minutes into the film, you may feel that you've basically experienced what the film has to offer; and in fact much of what remains is of a piece with what has gone before. Yet for me the last hour of the film was the most sublime. Not because the second half is so different from the first, but because the experience of the first half altered my experience of the film for the second. Like a postulant at the monastery, one needs time to truly acclimate to this world before one is ready to fully appreciate and embrace it, to experience it aright. Repetition, even if you will a degree of monotony, is inseparable from what this film wants to illuminate, what it has to offer.

A great film, what I usually think of as a great film, often leaves me thoughtful, challenged, moved, inspired (creatively and/or spiritually). The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was haunting and thought-provoking. Sophie Scholl was edifying and deeply affecting. United 93 earned my gratitude and admiration more than any other film last year.

I can't fully articulate how Into Great Silence affected me, except to say that it was a transforming experience, in that I find very, very few films to be. I walked the dozen or so blocks from the screening room to my parking garage in another world -- not just imaginatively immersed in the world of the film, but enveloped in a silence in my own heart. Part of me was resolved to find ways of make changes in my life, to find ways of creating silence, of accomodating in small ways the spirit of what I had experienced.

Coincidentally, the film is released by Zeitgeist, which also released the first of my favorite films of 2006, Sophie Scholl. The two couldn't be more different. Dialogue is at the very heart of Sophie Scholl; it's a very talky film. Obviously, Into Great Silence is the antithesis of talky. Beyond that, Sophie Scholl was reasonably critiqued for the absence of any particularly cinematic quality. Here again Into Great Silence is at the other end of the spectrum -- pure cinema, and of an ethereal order.

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The film's English website is here.

However, there's no English trailer yet, so you'll have to watch the one on the German site.

And if you want to know more about the Carthusian Order, well, here you go.

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Hi, SDG. The film sounds fascinating -- thanks for all your words. I hope to see it.

Question: The Kierkegaard quote is beautiful. Very touching for me, especially in the phase of life I'm in. Where does it come from?

-s.

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Coincidentally, I just mentioned at my blog yesterday that this film is playing in Vancouver next week.

Technically, this is actually a 2005 film (it played the Venice and Toronto film festivals before opening in Germany that year); and FWIW, I caught it on a screener (on my laptop, no less, which is most certainly not the preferred way to see this film) prior to the 2006 Vancouver film festival.

I am not sure yet whether it is worth the effort to see this film again on a big screen. What would I get from watching the services in this film that I don't get from standing and sometimes sitting through a two-hour (or, during Holy Week, three-hour) church service? What would I get from the silence and stillness in the theatre during this movie that I did not get from the silence and stillness in the theatre during James Benning's 13 Lakes?

The question is especially intriguing to me because someone has asked me if I would be able to see the film on Thursday night -- which just happens to be Bible study night -- and I might be skipping Bible study this week anyway, depending on how my wife's first week back at work turns out, and how late her shift goes, etc. (Her maternity leave comes to an end this weekend, and I'm gonna be the "primary caregiver" looking after the twins.)

Ah, the cares of the world, they ensnare us so.

BTW, I have a feeling that this film, or one very much like it, came up in some other thread a while ago, when we were discussing the question of whether prayer is a private act like sex and should therefore not be turned into an object of voyeurism (i.e. should not be filmed). Thoughts?

(Idle thought / side note: I wonder if theatres should sell Green Chartreuse in the lobby when showing this movie.)

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Thanks for moving the ratings comments offline, Alan. I don't want to get hung up on that issue. (FWIW, I suspected ratings tampering, even though I can't imagine why anyone would do such a thing. In a way I'm glad to hear that it wasn't only this thread being tampered with.)

Hi, SDG. The film sounds fascinating -- thanks for all your words. I hope to see it.

Question: The Kierkegaard quote is beautiful. Very touching for me, especially in the phase of life I'm in. Where does it come from?

Stef, I do hope you get a chance to see the film. Without presuming to know very much about your tastes, I suspect you will appreciate it very much.

I'm glad the Kierkegaard quote spoke to you. I don't know where it comes from. I've known it for years from seeing it cited somewhere. When I wanted to include it in my post above I just Googled Kierkegaard and "create silence," and found it somewhere, but again without a reference.

Technically, this is actually a 2005 film (it played the Venice and Toronto film festivals before opening in Germany that year); and FWIW, I caught it on a screener (on my laptop, no less, which is most certainly not the preferred way to see this film) prior to the 2006 Vancouver film festival.
I know, but for consideration purposes surely it counts as a 2007 film. I could gladly have put it on my 2006 list, but hopefully more people will get to see it in 2007, hopefully enough of us for it to get awards consideration at CT and the FFCC.

I am not sure yet whether it is worth the effort to see this film again on a big screen. What would I get from watching the services in this film that I don't get from standing and sometimes sitting through a two-hour (or, during Holy Week, three-hour) church service? What would I get from the silence and stillness in the theatre during this movie that I did not get from the silence and stillness in the theatre during James Benning's 13 Lakes?
Ah, those are two very different questions! :)

The second question is the easier one, I think; in fact it seems to me that I essentially answered it already in my original post:

It is a contemplative, transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning, on man as a religious and social creature; on the form and function of symbols and ritual and tradition; on the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring. ...

The movie is not just about comparative quiet; it bears witness to a silence that embodies purpose, seeking, openness, discipline, faith, commitment. It is silence that is
avowed
. ... Ultimately,
Into Great Silence
reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many films are about God's absence. This film is about a God who is there, who can be found, when he is sought with our whole hearts.

The silence and stillness of nature and that of the monastery are two very different things. Also, FWIW, as remarkable as 10-minute takes of lakes may or may not be, I find the mise en scene, the "still lifes," the variety of interior and exterior architecture as well as the French Alps landscapes, the interaction of image and sound, and the whole human dimension of Into Great Silence to offer something at least very different, if not far richer and more engaging, than what I might hope for going into a film like 13 Lakes.

One of the functions of cinema (not the main function, but still a function) is to expose us to worlds of human experience we might not otherwise encounter. In that respect, I have sat and watched lakes and other bodies of water for more than ten minutes at a time. I've never seen a Carthusian monastery, let alone been inside one, and on that ground alone (but not only that ground) I value Into Great Silence a great deal.

Incidentally, it's interesting that you mention thinking of music. At some point during the second half of Into Great Silence, I had a line from a contemplative CD come into my mind: "I will lead you into solitude / I will speak to your heart." That one line stayed with me through the rest of the screening and beyond, out into the street and all the next day. Just that one line; I didn't need anything else.

I want to stress, though, that I don't believe that my response to the film is unduly conditioned by whatever special affinity for the subject matter I have as a Catholic or even as a Christian. Obviously, it's a bonus, but I think receptive viewers of varied backgrounds will find essentially what I do in the film. I think of something Lewis wrote: "I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either." I think the same will be true here.

Perhaps this leads into your first question, about what the film offers that a two- or three-hour church service doesn't. Even in church, of course, we don't experience monasticism, but also this is a film, a work of art, not a church service. Even in liturgical worship, in which the aesthetic dimension matters greatly, faith remains the door by which one enters into the experience, or rather the act. Into Great Silence approaches by another door; faith is welcome, even invited, but not essential.

If I may put it this way, Into Great Silence invites me to contemplate the beauty of devotion and commitment in a way I wouldn't ordinarily have the luxury of doing in church. In my own case, as a believer that beauty may move me to a new appreciation of what devotion and commitment I have, perhaps even moved to new or renewed devotion and commitment. But that's a personal reaction, not what the film itself does.

That said, I think even unbelievers may find themselves on some level spiritually challenged by the beauty of devotion the film presents. Even so, the film isn't a tool for spiritual awareness, but an aesthetic experience, a work of art.

I do see one connection between a long church service and the experience of this film -- in fact, ssomething that I wrote about Into Great Silence applies also to my experience of long liturgical services, like the three-hour Easter Vigil liturgy.

I find that the first half of the service transforms my experience of the second half. I pray differently after I've been praying for an hour and a half. It makes me think that longer services may be better, and in trimming Sunday Mass to just under an hour churches may not be giving their parishioners all they could be. (Daily 30-minute Masses are different. If you go to Mass every day, you never really step out of the rhythm of work and corporate prayer, and you don't need a long period of reacclimating.)

Even so, while there is a certain analogy between the experience of Into Great Silence and the experience of a long liturgy, they are very far from interchangeable experiences.

But that perhaps leads to your next comment...

BTW, I have a feeling that this film, or one very much like it, came up in some other thread a while ago, when we were discussing the question of whether prayer is a private act like sex and should therefore not be turned into an object of voyeurism (i.e. should not be filmed). Thoughts?
The first thought that occurs to me is that prayer isn't necessarily a private act at all. Daniel deliberately prayed in public where he could be seen. Certainly corporate prayer, like we see in the chapel in this film, is a public act. Corporate prayer is often broadcast or televised -- you can watch Mass every day of the week at EWTN, not to mention Christmas and Easter liturgies at the Vatican -- so I think I would find it hard to get behind the idea that it "shouldn't" be filmed.

Even personal prayer, like the monks in their cells, isn't necessarily a "private" act that shouldn't be witnessed by others. Jesus offered personal prayer in public, e.g., at Lazarus's tomb. Daniel made a point of offering personal prayer where he could be seen.

Artistic depictions of prayer and praying can be found in the annals of Christian art; I don't have any in-principle objection to aestheticizing prayer -- though in practice I don't see the need to experience such art in a reductionistically aesthetic way, certainly not what I would call a "voyeuristic" way.

Into Great Silence invites a spiritual response from the viewer -- even the non-Christian viewer -- and that is a worthy thing, not an unworthy one. A filmed depiction of individuals engaged in erotic activity that elicits an erotic response from the viewer is pornographic and disordered. A filmed depiction of individuals engaged in spiritual activity that elicits a spiritual response from the viewer is praiseworthy.

But, again, it's not a spiritual "tool," but a work of art. I would, however, go so far as to say that as a work of art it corresponds magnificently to the descriptions of "sacred art" and "religious art" found in my sig quote below -- more so than perhaps any film I've seen as a new release in my critical life. It is even to a degree "Christian art" as defined below, though not pervasively or overwhelmingly so.

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Since mine was the (initial) vote in question (though, I see there have since been other votes) and Alan has publically labelled it fradulent, and since, as More says in A Man for All Seasons, silence implies consent (and could therefor be interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt), I feel a need to haul myself out of hiatus and register my defense.

A couple points that I think worth making:

1) The first great film of 2007 played at Toronto in 2005 and (as Peter mentions) has been available in screeners for months. The implication that nobody could have possibly seen it before Steven started this thread is just simply not true.

2) I'm puzzled by the claim that my votes indicate a pattern of trying to manipulate the outcome. Isn't that what votes are by their very nature intended to do? How exactly am I supposed to cast a vote intended not to manipulate the outcome? This logic seems tantamount to saying a "Guilty" vote in a jury is invalid because it is trying to manipulate the outcome of a trial or that a vote for a Democratic candidate is invalid because it is trying to maniuplate the outcome of an election.

3) Sure, when I bother to vote at all, I vote with 1s or 5s, because I pretty much only vote for films I have strong negative or positive feelings towards as a way of registering my dissent or contrary point of view without having to be harrassed (until now) with endless posts of "Surely you MUST see so and so's point"; "How can you defend that film?"; "How could you not like it?" etc. I don't really see much value in agonizing over whether Cars should be 2.5 or 3.0 stars and whether it is marginally better than Flushed Away or Ice Age 2. But I do see some marginal value in casting a dissenting vote over films like Magnolia, Signs, or whatever. Why is Ron allowed to say Old Joy or Stalker is a colossal bore, Jeffrey allowed to have a dissenting opinion about Superman Returns or The Nativity Story, I'm allowed to say that I found Mutual Appreciation (on Doug's top 10 list) one of the most excrutiatingly painful film experiences of the year, Christian allowed to say that if I didn't like Signs it is just because I have a problem with what the Bible plainly teaches, etc, but I'm not allowed to have a dissenting opinion about this film?

4) I suspect, though I cannot prove, that my real offense was not my vote against this film, but my lack of enthusiasm or willingness to parlay it into a public agonistic battle over the film to increase traffic to this or other A&F threads. Last year, before I went on hiatus, Greg ridiculed me for saying in the Children of Men thread that the treatment of dissenting opinion in these quarters was tantamount to saying that there was one and only one acceptable and correct Christian response to the various films being champione..er, discussed. Now we've apparently officially arrived at the point where, at the very least, certain users get to set the default or official rating for A&F threads and the burden of proof falls on dissenters to convince them or Alan to the contrary for their opinion to even be allowed to count. How sad.

Oh, and for the record:

Steven Greydanus: "long, static takes" ; "There is little overt structure, and much repetition; it wouldn't be hard to argue that a 90-minute version would be substantially the same experience."

Peter T. Chattaway: "I am not sure yet whether it is worth the effort to see this film again on a big screen."

Finally, I will admit that I have, in the past, cast votes for films that had not yet been made as a way of indicating (tongue-in-cheek) that there was an inherent flaw in the voting system--there were (and are) no systematic checks to indicate the qualifications of the voter and whether or not he/she had even, in fact, actually seen the film being made. I imagined casting votes for films that had not been made would be prima facie evidence that such votes were not to be taken seriously and Alan even assured me in other threads that votes could be changed, subsequently, should the film ever come out. I thought this was a funny way of pointing to the hyperseriousness with which the voting is taken around here, but I guess I need leave the saracastic little pissing to DanBuck from now on. If that means my voting priviliges are revoked, and my votes for films that have actually been made and distributed don't count, well I guess I can live with that, and I'm sure Magnolia fans the world over are now rejoicing.

Peace...and back to hiatus.

Ken

Edited by kenmorefield

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SDG wrote:

: The second question is the easier one, I think . . .

You're right, it is. Though I think it builds, in a way, on the first question. Or it is tied to it, and not entirely separate from it.

Actually, I think the very variety that you speak of, in Into Great Silence, might make the film more challenging to watch than 13 Lakes, which at least has the formal rigour of being nothing more and nothing less than 13 shots of exactly 10 minutes each. Into Great Silence, which is only a little bit longer than 13 Lakes, has shots of various lengths, filmed in various settings, and so issues of pacing and momentum become a little more pressing.

Side note: Why is the English title INTO Great Silence when the German title, near as I can make it, translates as THE Great Silence? How does this change in title reflect, or affect, our presuppositions going into the theatre (or popping in the DVD)?

: "I will lead you into solitude / I will speak to your heart." That one line . . .

Doesn't the slash indicate that it is actually TWO lines? :)

: I want to stress, though, that I don't believe that my response to the film is unduly

: conditioned by whatever special affinity for the subject matter I have as a

: Catholic or even as a Christian.

Oh, I totally agree.

: Perhaps this leads into your first question, about what the film offers that a two- or

: three-hour church service doesn't. Even in church, of course, we don't experience

: monasticism . . .

Well, as a married father, I doubt I will EVER "experience monasticism", though I suppose I might pay an extended visit to a monastery some day. The fact that this is a 2.5-hour movie, much/most of which concerns religious services and practices (corporate prayer, solitary prayer, etc.), is partly what leads me to compare the film to 2- or 3-hour church services. If the movie were running non-stop for a week, and we all stayed in the theatre, then that might be more like "experiencing monasticism", at least in the I-went-on-a-retreat sense.

: If I may put it this way, Into Great Silence invites me to contemplate the beauty

: of devotion and commitment in a way I wouldn't ordinarily have the luxury of

: doing in church.

Okay, I can see that.

: The first thought that occurs to me is that prayer isn't necessarily a private act at all.

Yeah, after I logged out, it occurred to me that maybe "sacred" would have been a better word. The existence of corporate prayer was precisely what made me think that. Still, that said, there is something about the solitary prayers that, it seems to me, is compromised by the fact that the person doing the praying is no longer by himself, but instead is being followed by a camera crew.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Actually, I think the very variety that you speak of, in Into Great Silence, might make the film more challenging to watch than 13 Lakes, which at least has the formal rigour of being nothing more and nothing less than 13 shots of exactly 10 minutes each. Into Great Silence, which is only a little bit longer than 13 Lakes, has shots of various lengths, filmed in various settings, and so issues of pacing and momentum become a little more pressing.
I can see how one might feel that way. Of course, I was speaking primarily not to the comparative challenge or effort involved in watching either film, so much as the question of what Into Great Silence has to offer that is different from (I suppose) 13 Lakes or going to church. Your first question did involve a cost-benefit comparison ("Is it worth the effort to see the film again on the big screen?"), but I was more addressing your follow-up questions about "What would I get...?"

Obviously, I value very greatly what the film has to offer. Whether that is worth your effort to see it again on the big screen is of course a question only you can answer. :)

Side note: Why is the English title INTO Great Silence when the German title, near as I can make it, translates as THE Great Silence? How does this change in title reflect, or affect, our presuppositions going into the theatre (or popping in the DVD)?
I think "the great silence" has a technical meaning in monastic usage, but I need to check on that. I don't know why the English title is different, but I kind of like it -- it suggests an encounter, a journey or odyssey, or if you like a pilgrimage.

Doesn't the slash indicate that it is actually TWO lines? :)
Perhaps I should have kept the comma I originally typed. I didn't like the look of it.

Well, as a married father, I doubt I will EVER "experience monasticism", though I suppose I might pay an extended visit to a monastery some day. The fact that this is a 2.5-hour movie, much/most of which concerns religious services and practices (corporate prayer, solitary prayer, etc.), is partly what leads me to compare the film to 2- or 3-hour church services. If the movie were running non-stop for a week, and we all stayed in the theatre, then that might be more like "experiencing monasticism", at least in the I-went-on-a-retreat sense.
There is experience and experience. Like I said, one of the functions of cinema is to expose us to worlds we might not otherwise encounter. It's not the same as being a monk, but the film does offer an encounter with monasticism, and a powerful one.

: The first thought that occurs to me is that prayer isn't necessarily a private act at all.

Yeah, after I logged out, it occurred to me that maybe "sacred" would have been a better word. The existence of corporate prayer was precisely what made me think that. Still, that said, there is something about the solitary prayers that, it seems to me, is compromised by the fact that the person doing the praying is no longer by himself, but instead is being followed by a camera crew.

FWIW, there was no camera crew -- just Groening, and whatever camera equipment he could carry and operate on his own. This did not include special lighting, which was excluded. Groening also maintained the discipline of silence, all of which, I suppose, served to minimize the invasiveness of his presence.

In fact, Groening essentially lived as a monk during his months at the monastery, including following their grueling schedule of work and prayer (the monks never sleep for more than three hours at a time -- though Groening admits he missed night prayer "a couple of times") as well as the discipline of silence. (Like the monks, he was allowed necessary work-related speech, e.g., "Now I need the three-pole pin plug." Though since he had no crew I'm not sure what occasion he had to say such things; evidently he had at least some help now and then from the monks!)

Incidentally, Groening identifies himself as a Catholic, though he qualifies this by saying "I was raised Catholic. I do not agree with many things prescribed by the official church, but I think that it would be too great a chain of accidents if the world we live in arose completely without meaning."

FWIW.

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SDG wrote:

: FWIW, there was no camera crew -- just Groening, and whatever camera

: equipment he could carry and operate on his own.

That's really interesting -- as is the other stuff you mention. I'm not sure it affects my point, though. (One could say, I'm not sure it's a difference that makes a difference.) I would say Groening WAS the camera crew, rather than that there was NO camera crew there.

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Every human action is altered by the presence of a camera. (Insert appropriate Muggeridge quotation and/or reference to Heisenberg uncertainty principle here.) With prayer, is there a difference in the degree or significance of the alteration, as compared with other activities? We do, of course, have Jesus' admonishment in favor of private prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet not all prayers recorded in the New Testament are private ones.

Edited by mrmando

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mrmando wrote:

: Every human action is altered by the presence of a camera.

And every divine action...? (Well, SOMEbody had to say it. :) )

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That's really interesting -- as is the other stuff you mention. I'm not sure it affects my point, though.
I agree, at least as regards the basic principle. Certainly it can be said that a monk praying alone in his cell at night is not the same thing as a monk praying in his cell at night with a cameraman. In that sense, by admitting the cameraman, the monk is altering his routine.

That said, while he alters his routine, he doesn't abandon or negate it. His routine is still there, and we are still able to get a valid glimpse of it. He is still doing substantially the same thing he always does, even though the circumstances are different.

As long as this qualification is understood and accepted by the monk, by his authorities, and by the audience, I don't see that there is anything here to stumble at.

Every human action is altered by the presence of a camera. (Insert appropriate Muggeridge quotation and/or reference to Heisenberg uncertainty principle here.)
Of course, that's why I said "minimize" rather than "eliminate."

With prayer, is there a difference in the degree or significance of the alteration, as compared with other activities? We do, of course, have Jesus' admonishment in favor of private prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet not all prayers recorded in the New Testament are private ones.
And even the private ones, if they are recorded at all, weren't so "private" that they weren't allowed to be recorded! (Conversely, if there were prayers so private that they weren't allowed to be recorded... well, we wouldn't know about them, would we? :))

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SDG wrote:

: That said, while he alters his routine, he doesn't abandon or negate it. His routine

: is still there, and we are still able to get a valid glimpse of it.

Maybe it's the very notion of prayer as "routine" that I have qualms with. Granted, there can be a "routine" to one's prayer life, and there is nothing wrong with following a liturgy or a canon (indeed, the Lord's Prayer itself is just such a formula), but as with sex, so with personal prayer: one should ideally maintain an openness towards possible surprises, and a receptiveness to whatever the other person might say or do. And I have difficulty imagining that one can maintain this "openness" to God -- this conscious awareness that one is alone with God and receptive to his workings on one's spirit -- when one is also conscious of the cameraman there.

I don't think I am "stumbling" over this aspect of the film. But it does give me pause, and I'm still looking for the right words to express my take on this aspect of the film.

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I'm sure Magnolia fans the world over are now rejoicing.

Na. Can't say I pay enough attention to the A&F voting system for it to matter.

Generally though, I do enjoy the discussions around here.

-s.

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but as with sex, so with personal prayer: one should ideally maintain an openness towards possible surprises, and a receptiveness to whatever the other person might say or do. And I have difficulty imagining that one can maintain this "openness" to God -- this conscious awareness that one is alone with God and receptive to his workings on one's spirit -- when one is also conscious of the cameraman there.

Ah. The metaphor might seem crude to some, but I find it helpful.

I don't think I am "stumbling" over this aspect of the film. But it does give me pause, and I'm still looking for the right words to express my take on this aspect of the film.

Well, you answered my question, FWIW, i.e., what you thought was special about prayer that made it inconducive to being filmed. We all know that putting cameras and sex together is essentially problematic.

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Bought my ticket for Thursday night. Huge anticipation.

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And I have difficulty imagining that one can maintain this "openness" to God -- this conscious awareness that one is alone with God and receptive to his workings on one's spirit -- when one is also conscious of the cameraman there.

I can't imagine a monk who has dedicated his very existence to the seeking and finding of God, one who has essentially trained himself to be contemplative regardless of his surroundings, would have the same response to having a camera in the room as you or I.

Brennan Manning speaking on a stage in front of many people does not seem to have any issues with "openness" before God, though I'm sure his private moments do contain some different aspects that would not be shared in public. But how much more so would a monk be able to shut out his surroundings when he must. I just don't think that this area of the film would be an issue.

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Reading my way through the Village Voice Film Guide this morning, I came on this sentence in Michael Atkinson's review of LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST: "A manic culture doesn't sit still to meditate and dream, and so, to our detriment, we're now supporting one kind of cinema only."

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Reading my way through the Village Voice Film Guide this morning, I came on this sentence in Michael Atkinson's review of LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST: "A manic culture doesn't sit still to meditate and dream, and so, to our detriment, we're now supporting one kind of cinema only."
Thanks, Ron -- that's very apt.

Even better, Into Great Silence perfectly joins form and function, subject and method. In that sense I'm reminded of Andrei Rublev, in which transcendence in art is both contemplated and achieved. It's a rare perfection in a film.

: That said, while he alters his routine, he doesn't abandon or negate it. His routine

: is still there, and we are still able to get a valid glimpse of it.

Maybe it's the very notion of prayer as "routine" that I have qualms with.

Hm. Depending on how "routine" is understood, I can't say I share this qualm. Would it make any difference if I had said "discipline" or "practice"?

Granted, there can be a "routine" to one's prayer life, and there is nothing wrong with following a liturgy or a canon (indeed, the Lord's Prayer itself is just such a formula), but as with sex, so with personal prayer: one should ideally maintain an openness towards possible surprises, and a receptiveness to whatever the other person might say or do. And I have difficulty imagining that one can maintain this "openness" to God -- this conscious awareness that one is alone with God and receptive to his workings on one's spirit -- when one is also conscious of the cameraman there.
Why do you single out personal prayer? Is receptivity and openness to God not also appropriate for a priest celebrating the divine liturgy? Is it not in the eucharistic celebration that the nuptial mystery of Christ and His Bride is most perfectly expressed, in which we are even physically united flesh to his flesh? Surely if the sex analogy applies anywhere, it's there.

Besides, if anything, the monk being filmed in his cell has greater freedom to be open to the promptings of the Spirit than the priest celebrating the liturgy, because his prayer is internal and can take any form, go anywhere, become anything the Spirit wants. The priest is bound by the form of the liturgy to pray with the mind of the Church.

Anyway, why shouldn't the presence of the cameraman itself be one of those "surprises" from God to which the monks ought to be open? :) They didn't seek Groening -- he came to them.

And they didn't say yes lightly! On the contrary, they said "Let us get back to you"... and then -- get this -- it was sixteen years later before they were finally ready! :D

I think it's safe to say that a lot of prayer and contemplation went into the decision to allow the filming. Openness to the Spirit's perogative to blow how He wills seems to me to side with openness to the decision to allow the filming, rather than on the side of qualms that the filming might interfere with the freedom of the Spirit or of the monks to respond to Him.

I know you're not "stumbling," just asking questions.

I can't imagine a monk who has dedicated his very existence to the seeking and finding of God, one who has essentially trained himself to be contemplative regardless of his surroundings, would have the same response to having a camera in the room as you or I.
Good point. Of course, it's also true that for a monk accustomed to the solitude of his cell, the presence of another individual might loom even larger as a distraction than it would for you or me.

On the other hand, as you say, his whole life is about living before God under any circumstances -- even embracing distractions as further opportunities in the school of self-mastery. Thus, a cameraman is just one more distraction, one more obstacle -- and therefore one more opportunity to live his vocation.

Edited by SDG

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SDG wrote:

: Besides, if anything, the monk being filmed in his cell has greater freedom to be open to

: the promptings of the Spirit than the priest celebrating the liturgy, because his prayer is

: internal and can take any form, go anywhere, become anything the Spirit wants. The priest is

: bound by the form of the liturgy to pray with the mind of the Church.

Well, yes, but this kind of supports my point, does it not? It does not impede it, at any rate.

: Anyway, why shouldn't the presence of the cameraman itself be one of those "surprises"

: from God to which the monks ought to be open? :)

Ha!

: And they didn't say yes lightly! On the contrary, they said "Let us get back to you"... and then

: -- get this -- it was sixteen years later before they were finally ready! :D

Yes, if memory serves, this is mentioned in the end credits.

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I saw this in 2005 and thought the film was enjoyable enough; my problem was that is seemed rather haphazardly constructed, without a steady rhythm in its editing, and I would have appreciated much more structural rigor for a film of this type. Yes, there's no dialogue and that's effective, but I'm not convinced it's a major work of art. On the other hand, I didn't see it in optimal circumstances, either, so I'd be willing to give it another chance when it plays in L.A. in a few weeks.

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Interesting thoughts, Doug. I found myself wondering about the structure of the film, and even about the rhythm of the editing, which I did find somewhat... Random? Or at least, changeable? Varied?

My experience was that the expansiveness of the film (by which I mean, as a starting point, its running time, but also more than that) allowed me to enter into a state of timelessness. A couple people around me checked their clocks, one time each, and I was sure that I didn't want to check mine, I was so appreciating the taste of eternity afforded by entering into a world where time wasn't marked so specifically.

In a narrative film, obviously, we have a clear sense when the story leaves behind its exposition and moves into its complications, and then when it moves into its final act. Certainly different films play with these expectations, but even when there is a false resolution, or an extended denoument, or a multi-plot structure that dilutes some of those narrative expectations, or even a narrative film-maker who works against conventional structural expectations, there is very often a sense of shape, and of a gathering toward resolution (or irresolution, if that's how a film leaves us). As I spin this idea out, I find myself pausing to think about Tarkovsky, who certainly manipulates the construction of his narratives with a specific mind to affecting our experience of time ("sculpting" it, in fact), but even so, there is a definite, fairly readily graspable perception of dramatic build, and structure (though perhaps less so in Tarkovsky films I've not yet seen, perhaps MIRROR?): we know when we've reached the end of the STALKER journey, SACRIFICE culminates in that long sequence shot that clearly brackets the film, and RUBLEV's bell episode contains myriad clues that the film is gathering itself for a conclusion.

In GREAT SILENCE, various structural markers do in fact occur, of course - certain repeated texts, sequences of portrait-like shots of the individual monks, the ringing of the bell, candle images - and I found myself wondering how those structured the flow of the film. But I wanted to stay out of my head and in the flow of the film, so I let those go past and have whatever effect they might have. A little like a visitor to the charterhouse might find themselves slowly discovering and intuiting the rhythms and structures to the life of the community - though I suppose it's also possible that a visitor to such a place would be given a very precise timetable of the various services, etc. Still, my experience of visiting the two such places I've spent time at - Westminster Abbey, outside Vancouver, and Mount Saint Francis near Calgary - is that things just sort of happen, you're told very little: "When you hear the bell, come to the refectory for the meal. There will be confession Saturday night." The rest you just kind of absorb.

I wonder if the less than rigorous tempo of editing actually aids in that disorienting, a-temporalizing (I made that up!) effect which I experienced, and value so much about the picture? (Though I could certainly also see a different sort of choice being made, along the lines of what Doug mentions, with very strictly rhythmic edits echoing the nature of this most disciplined of religious orders.)

Because my experience of the film was so complete, and so unqualifiedly positive, I don't feel any compulsion to question the choices that were made, since whatever they were, they worked to tremendous effect. I'm more inclined to think on how the film does what it does, and wonder how various elements contributed to its effectiveness. Had it worked less well, I might be holding it up to a different light.

Jan Kiesser was there last night, an accomplished cinematographer. Perhaps I can raise this question with him.

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Some great thoughts, Ron.

Doug, I'm glad you at least somewhat appreciated the film. I can't say whether a second viewing would at all alter your perception of the film, but I hope you'll give it that second chance.

Like both of you, I thought about the question of structure as I watched the film. I noticed a couple of structural strategies that I appreciated, but in general, like you, Ron, I found the total effect of the film so transcendent (your description of a sense of timelessness is very apropos) that I had no wish to pull away and think analytically about structural issues. It did occur to me as something I would want to try to absorb on subsequent viewings.

One thing I noticed was the way Groening introduces images apart from any explanatory context, but later goes on to provide the missing context.

For instance, in one shot we see a long, narrow swath of fabric hanging against an interior wall, wafting in the draft. It looks something like a window drape, but there's no window, no way to tell what the fabric is or what it's for. Later, though, another shot shows us what the monks use the cloth for.

Still later, we get an even larger picture as (in one of the rare bits of discussion) we hear the monks comparing the practice associated with the cloth with that of other monasteries they know of, and that shot of swaying fabric takes on a much larger significance. ("The symbols are not to be questioned -- we are.")

The main structural strategy I noticed, of course, was the progression of seasons. (I would feel silly spoiler tagging this, but FWIW I was glad to experience it as a discovery watching the film rather than reading about it first.)

The film opens in bleak midwinter, amid austerity, frozenness, impenetrability. The monastery lays under a blanket of snow, so silent and still that you can hear the falling of snowflakes. Within, the monks go about their business, but one sees their world as outsiders. There is no entering this world.

But there is. A pair (?) of postulants are received and take the tonsure, and we watch the beginnings of their life in the monastery. Meanwhile, there are small signs of life, of the coming spring. An icebound succulent (some sort of orpine, perhaps hens and chicks, aka sempervivum tectorum) clings to life. An elderly monk walks into a snowbound field and begins shoveling, seemingly at random; eventually we see he is clearing garden beds for planting.

At last there is melting ice and snow, and spring comes to the monastery. By this time the monks' lives no longer seem so impenetrable. A sense of routine and familiarity develops. A deciduous tree, bare in midwinter, buds and becomes green. Joy and life, rather than severity and rigor, suffuse the monastery, and the film.

The film could end there. But it doesn't. It returns to winter. (I'm guessing this may be an artifact of editing; Groening only spent six months in the monastery. But I guess it's possible in the Alps that he was there from snow through summer to snow again; I'll ask him next week when I interview him.)

And yet, even with the returning ice and snow, the sense of severity and impenetrability is no longer there. We've seen too much. This is a place of joy, of inner freedom. And so we get that wonderful scene in the snow -- those of you who've seen it know the one I mean.

Those are some of the points I remember. I seem to recall others as well, but I'd want to see the film again before commenting much more in this regard.

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Great observations, Steven. Sounds like you and I had very similar experiences of this film.

Looking back on what I posted, I'm not sure I made clear my experience of eternity / timelessness. There came a point when it occurred to me that I had no real idea how many minutes had passed in the film, and how much might remain. From that moment forward, I began to revel in that sense of, I don't know, "floating"? Each of the two times a fellow audience member checked their watch, I remember delighting in the conscious sensation of being completely adrift, outside of time, with no sense of how long this might continue. It came to the point where, when a specific sequence would end, I would feel real dread that the film might have come to an end - almost as if it would destroy a fantasy that the film would have no end, that I would live in this still, quiet awakeness forever. (Writing that down, I feel rather self-conscious, as though I'm pretending to some transcendent spiritual experience. It was no big thing. And yet, it was delicious. Definitely a meditative state, I would say. An experience I'm most grateful for.)

And yet, even with the returning ice and snow, the sense of severity and impenetrability is no longer there. We've seen too much. This is a place of joy, of inner freedom.

Indeed. When the text at the end of the film informs us that the Carthusian order is considered the most ascetic of all Catholic orders, I felt shocked: their life seemed so full, so alive, so... Well, aesthetic? Sensual? ...and their joy so complete, that the term "ascetic" seemed hardly appropriate.

Viva la via negativa!

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Dearie me, I'd love to spend the time this topic deserves reading these posts but am currently overwhelmed with work and will be for a fair while. I mention this because I haven't had much sleep for the past week and so when I went to see this film today I fell asleep at various points throughout. I personally think that this is a credit to the film, it is so immersed in portraying the peacefulness of the world it is immersed in that it is impossible not to be calmed by it. Or at least that's my argument and I'm sticking to it... Seriously though, I did see the majority of the film and found it quite literally delightful. Am still exhausted however and wouldn't want to fall asleep whilst reading the posts on the film I fell asleep in and so will save it for another time.

However, with respect to the little I read about the concern re. awareness of the camera. (apologies if this has already been discussed). The director had to abide by the rules of the monastry. This meant that he only filmed 4 hours a day as he was given daily duties that he had to perform like all the monks he portrayed. Furthermore, he was the only cameraman allowed into the monastry and filmed the whole thing himself. There were also no outside light sources allowed, and no additional sound. (Incidentally, this would make this film valid for entry into the Dogme canon). There is undoubtedly an awareness of the impact of his presence in the monastry which is a small part of what is contained in the many direct shots of the monks looking directly into the camera which, to me, were endlessly fascinating. In part because their visages were so still - only one almost smiled but even that was completely unselfconscious, another's eyes shifted somewhat (he was the only one that had photographs in his quarters too - the newest recruit) - which revealed so little but equally massive amounts. Their looks, unlike the usual ones set up like this, were everything but confrontational which to me spoke of their appreciation of the relative unimportance of films in the grander scheme of things. And yet there was also an awareness that it could be a tool for spreading the word - the blind man's mention that it's sad to see meaning has left the modern world - and surely this would have been a reason for opening their doors 13 years after the director originally sought permission to film there (he was originally told that they weren't ready).

Edited by gigi

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