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.