Those of us who have followed the development of this movie are familiar already with the story of its origin: "In 1984, German filmmaker Philp Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about the. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready." Without crew, artificial lighting or sound – other than the ambient noises of the monastery – and without running commentary, the Carthusians, one of the Church's most austere orders, welcomed Gröning into their midst. He filmed their daily prayers, tasks, rituals, rare outdoor excursions against a background of the changing seasons. Supernature, as well as nature, marks the rhythms of life of these very holy and yet intensely human beings who dwell at the Grande Chartreuse.
The result is Into Great Silence.
The film is multifaceted. The fact that it has neither score nor script allowed the filmmaker to witness the natural development of the story unfolding before him. This is a story of prayer, sacrifice and intense joy.
I think that nothing portrays the humanity of these men more than the brief interludes Gröning captured of each one of them. Interspersed throughout the movie Gröning presents us with the faces of the monks and I firmly believe that, although I don't know and may never know their names, I swear I know them. Their personalities jump at you from the screen. This is possible because their continuous dialogue with God has enabled these monks to drop all masks, all pretenses, their very hearts coming to us through their eyes and their beings through their countenances.
Into Great Silence is somewhat of a misnomer. For we hear the monks pray together, talk, and even play. We hear the animals calling, the sound of the wind over the mountains, the drops of water from melting snow, of a fork against a dish, and of human laughter. We also hear the words of the blind monk sharing his joy for the gift of sightlessness. We hear the prayers the Prior pronounced over the two prostrated novices at Chapter. We hear the "yes" they give to the Lord and his Church to lose themselves forever behind those holy walls, and we see and hear the loving embrace with which each member of the community welcomes the new brothers. We hear the sound of their hair being cut. We hear the food cart trampling down the ancient hallways. We hear the "click click" that the hands of the Prior makes as he types in his IBM notebook computer.
There's a lesson in all this, for it is not the lack of sounds that make this place a holy place, but the "quality" of the silence and what it's said and heard in it.
If you're looking for an action-packed film crawling with murderous albino monks intent on protecting the secrets of the Church, this movie is not for you. In fact, it may put you to sleep. But if you are a seeker of the Face of God and the Spirit is impelling you to deepen your communion with the Lord, whether as a lay person or even as a member of this holy group of burnt men, you will find yourself one step closer to his Mystery.
I urge you to watch and pray Into Great Silence.