The most beautiful and entrancing nonfiction film to reach the Triangle so far this year, Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence has a title which might befit a Jacques Cousteau undersea odyssey but actually describes an extraordinary voyage into a realm no less mutely wondrous—a Carthusian monastery high in the French Alps.
From the first moments on, beholding Gröning's gorgeous images (which, of course, are not silent but accompanied by natural sound) means being transported into a place that seems 800 years old yet miraculously unchanged. Or perhaps it's actually some eternal locale that exists just above the plane we live on. Or, again, a memory from deep in the collective unconscious that's somehow made its way onto celluloid.
The place's uncanny otherness is due in no small part to the way Gröning renders it. Not a film about a monastery, Into Great Silence has no narrative and offers no explanatory titles, interviews, background, history, theological context, what have you. Rather, it is a vision of the monastic experience, its rhythms and textures and otherworldly aspirations, made by a filmmaker who surrenders to the spiritual calm he observes.
One of the first images, which recurs in various forms throughout the film, is simplicity itself: a monk, seen in profile, kneels praying in his cell, his face in shadow, his white robe flowing from his shoulders to the ground. He is on the right side of the frame, which is bisected by the tall, slender chimney of a small stove that provides his warmth.
Though Gröning cuts from close-ups to medium shots, the flat, distanced, symmetrical nature of his composition is maintained throughout. What happens in this key scene is that, first and most importantly, nothing happens. The monk is praying and we are watching: just that. No drama, no argument, no momentum. This is what the whole film will be like, it quickly tells us. And thus we begin to understand, even if we can't articulate it at first, that the silence we're voyaging into, the great silence, is not just the monastery's and this monk's, but our own—if we will hear it.
Even from this initial compositional scheme, however, you might correctly infer that Gröning is also inviting us to ponder something else, too: the spiritual implications of the great voyage of Western visual art, from painting to photography to cinema.
That first scene's look, after all, evokes nothing so much as a medieval icon. It is all serene stasis and essence, devoid of individual personality (the shadowed monk is any monk), visual depth and temporal velocity. All of this, we are reminded, was lost when Renaissance painters embraced perspective, which turned the placidity of two-dimensional space into a whirling, fake-3D vortex that demanded movement, drama, and the agitated solitude of the viewer—even (or especially) when the subject was religious.
Gröning reverses this, to the extent he can. Certainly there are moments in the film—the camera follows a monk down a long hallway, or gazes from high above into the receding depths of a large chapel—when the spirit of Renaissance painting dominates. But more often, Gröning's use of space-flattening long lenses, straight-on perspectives and depthless backgrounds escorts us back toward the pregnant stillness of the icon.
And that, in turn, recalls that this fundament of Western art shared a purpose and an objective with monasteries: contemplation.
So what could photography, which merely amped up the literalism and perspectivalism of post-Renaissance painting, add to the lexicon of a recovered contemplative art? This, mainly: luminosity. The icons' sacred aureate glow dimmed with painting's progress, but returned, cleansed and renewed, with the advent of photography, especially radiant, soft-hued modern color photography.
There are many moments in Into Great Silence when the viewer is aware of watching, not cinematography, but photography. You might think this is because so many images, being devoid of movement, resemble still photographs. But I think it's more because the color stops us in our mental tracks with its beauty, inviting us, through a lucent alchemy, into a worshipful contemplation of the natural world.
The softening, harmonizing effect of the color photography (including the images' seductive graininess) accords magically, in other words, with the natural splendor of what is beheld. Gröning uses only ambient light, and observes almost nothing (a glimpsed jet and computer notwithstanding) that didn't exist a millennium ago. We are struck by the stunning alpine setting in different seasons, by the quality of the light as it washes across a portico or illuminates a wooden table bearing a single piece of fruit. We can't help but note the gentle kinship between the off-whites of the monks' robes and those of the monastery's ancient walls.
(Granted, this visual language has something in common with magazine ads that want to sell you cable-knit sweaters for use on your yacht off Kennebunkport. Yet the purposeful purity of Gröning's enterprise manages, thankfully, to retrieve an organic notion of beauty from its mercantile corruption. No small feat, that.)
As for cinema's potential contribution to the contemplative vision, this mainly devolves from the factor that distinguishes the newer medium from painting: time. Time is the enemy of stillness, no doubt, and most movies fruitlessly try to bury our anxiety over time in a furious acceleration and fragmentation of it. There are notable counter-examples, of course: Especially, in the West, the films of the great French Catholic director Robert Bresson, whose characters' faces, David Thomson noted, "are like those of spectators, stilled by contemplation."
Like Bresson, Gröning organizes his film's narrative—its time frame, literally—not in the usual mechanistic way, but loosely, around clusters of compositions, settings, people and ideas that recur. We don't follow a novice through his first season, or observe the monastery over a year, or anything so obvious as that. The novice, the seasons and many other elements are all present; but rather than being marshaled into a tight chronological scheme, they are casually dispersed, like motifs in an expansive mosaic.
One consequence of this is that you relax into the film's temporal rhythms so easily that its 162-minute length can actually seem short. Another is that, like Bresson's films, Into Great Silence invites or induces a kind of bodily comportment very much akin to that of meditation, with a calm erect posture and regular shallow breathing, although here it's a steady outward gaze that leads us inward, into that great silence.
Paradoxically or not, it is this meditative quality that explains Into Great Silence as a supremely cinematic achievement. I have seen the film in both a movie theatre and as a DVD on my computer, and believe me, the second experience doesn't hold a candle to the first. Just as a Bellini masterpiece is better grasped when seen in its native basilica than in an art textbook, only beholding Gröning's film in a theater reveals the full extent of its significant beauties—and of cinema's under-utilized potential as a sacramental art.