Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Into Great Silence, dir. Philip Gröning (2005)

Philip Gröning's film Die Große Stille took 21 one years to make, a mere blink of the eye for a Carthusian. The Carthusians were founded in 1084 by St Bruno of Cologne. The order boasts never to have been reformed, which is technically correct (though it has changed over the centuries). It was an extremely powerful order in the middle ages perhaps due to its patronage by European royals, in particular in France and later in Italy. In fact, the Order's founder was responsible for two houses, one at Chartreux (close to Grenoble), and the second in Calabria at Serra San Bruno. He had been summoned out of the solitary life by Urban II for political advice and Urban, sensibly, wished to keep him close. The result was Bruno founding a sort of second mother house in Calabria. The Order is famous for its austerity and its great learning (the Carthusian libraries were some of the richest in medieval Europe).

This film is a delicate and richly textured portrait of the Carthusians. It is utter simplicity. There is hardly any dialogue. The viewer follows the monks in their daily rituals as a kind of fly-on-the-wall. The camera sits watching a monk praying with a relentless patience. The monks are not exactly embarrassed by the camera, more tolerant of it. There are sets of portrait shots of each monk that are stunning. Just long shots of a face looking back, compelling and moving. The director takes shots of a bowl of fruit or a glass of water and works a kind of magic with them, creating something worthy of an early Netherlandish miniature or about which a Friedländer or Panofsky might write with grave scholarship.

The harsh environment is an integral part of their existance (the first site of Bruno's monastery was destroyed early in the twelfth century by an avalanche and the surviving monks had to descend several hundred meters for safety reasons). And yet they make the environment something not oppressive. There are comic moments. One scene follows the monks on a walk where they bring little sleighs and slide down the incline laughing and joking with each other. Another comic conversation is recorded where they discuss the ritual of handwashing before dinner. They are austere but far from humourless. The film has an extraordinary effect of the viewer. You find yourself becoming the silence, becoming the ritual. Last night everyone left the cinema in almost total silence, and even as people gathered outside the cinema there was little conversation.

I'm not going to insult the beauty of this achievement by giving the usual guff about it being an antidote to our busy lives and how we don't know what silence is anymore. Something more is happening here. Go and see this film. Just go.


hesitant hack said...

I meant to email you about this! I saw a trailer for it the other week and knew you'd love it. Did it remind you of Padula?

Here's a podcast, an interview, from the Film Forum website - it's with a member of the Carthusian order. His name is O', it's Holleran.

Miglior acque said...

Oh, I'm listening to this now. Yes, it did remind me of Padula and it is just wonderful. You should try to see it if you can. I'm awfully close to T-Day!

hesitant hack said...

really? That's terrific...have you gotten any of it back from your supervisor yet?

Chat soon?

Miglior acque said...

Yes. Was given the all clear, except for a few typos and a bit of revision. All very do-able. Would like to submit on Thurs or Fri, a week before I have officially got to do it.


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