Asceticism and ‘Silence’

Times Staff Writer

“Into Great Silence” is a transcendent, transporting experience, a trance movie that casts a major league spell by going deeply into a monastic world that lives largely without words. In the hands of filmmaker Philip Groning, it becomes clear that silence is not the absence of sound, it’s a physical place, a destination with value and meaning in a chaotic world, arrived at with difficulty and departed with regret.

German documentary filmmaker Groning tried for 15 years to gain admittance to the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps near Grenoble before the intense, white-robed Carthusians, on site since 1084 and known as the most rigorous and ascetic monastic order in the Western world, let him inside the walls.

Groning stayed at the monastery for six months, living the life of a monk as well as serving as writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor on this two-hour and 42-minute film that has played successfully across Europe.


The length is essential, for “Into Great Silence” intends not to observe or provide information. It wants to completely immerse the viewer in the monastic experience, to enable you to feel what it is like to live the life, showing rather than simply telling what being there was like.

Not surprisingly, the first instinct with this film, as it would be with a life of meditation and devotion, is to resist, to feel that not enough is happening to keep us interested and involved. When you add the fact that the monks almost never speak, it’s hard to imagine what the fuss is about.

Gradually, however, Groning’s unobtrusive, respectful camera work draws you into the rhythms of the monastic life, into both the time spent in solitary prayer and the various subsistence occupations the monks take on.

From seeing the careful measurement needed to construct a robe to watching vegetables literally go from seeds to soup, “Into Great Silence” allows us to feel as if we’re partaking of a contemplative, life-out-of-time experience.

The unexpected paradox of “Into Great Silence” is that the overpowering quiet has the effect of intensifying any and all sounds, making the smallest noise seem pregnant with meaning. Whether it’s the turning of pages, the ticking of a clock or the rustling of fabric, that great silence makes us more alive to what is going on around us. To be aware of the world, the monks would likely say, is to be aware of God’s munificence in creating it for our benefit.

To emphasize the centrality of Catholic worship to the monastic experience, “Into Great Silence” periodically puts biblical texts, for instance Christ’s pointed admonition that “anyone who does not give up all he has cannot be my disciple,” up on the screen. Especially poignant is a quote from 1 Kings that explains that, although God was not to be found in earthquake or fire, “after the fire came a gentle whisper.”


Worship also plays a key part in the monastery’s soundscape. The ringing of bells divides the day and calls the monks to their frequent prayers, and the only time a monk is seen to rush is when the bell ringer is late to his task. Especially haunting are the nighttime worship services featuring Gregorian chants that are positively hypnotic coming out of so much silence.

All this may sound rather cold and forbidding, but “Into Great Silence” shows the monks living fuller lives than one might imagine. They benefit from the communality of monastic life, are allowed to talk during once-a-week walks outside the monastery’s walls, and can be seen using their boots as skis in wintertime and incongruously sliding down steep and snowy hills.

“Into Great Silence” is finally a film where nothing seems to happen but everything comes to pass. Though it likely will not persuade people to join the ranks, experiencing life behind the walls has an undeniable effect. We’ve been allowed a glimpse of eternity. And who would not be changed by that?

“Into Great Silence.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 42 minutes. Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.