On the darkened screen is a scant indication of a man praying; the forms barely emerge from the quiet dark. Beautifully composed, the image remains on screen for what seems like minutes
and then the camera moves back to reveal more of the monk, and then back again to show the austerity of his cell. Slow, quiet, barely illuminated.
In 2002 the German filmmaker Philip Groning received permission to film at the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in the French Alps; he spent six months there, without a crew, using only natural light. He begins the film in winter, goes through the seasons until winter returns, giving us a sense of the flow of the monks' lives through time.
The camera follows the monks in their daily round, in their cells, as they live in silence, except for times of prayer and one delightful day in the week when they walk out into the landscape.
It is a landscape of grandeur and awe. Groning's eye captures remarkable beauty. Every shot of this glacially slow, very long film, is well considered. I enjoyed going back through the movie and looking at many of the frames as stills.
Interspersed throughout the movie are several portraits of monks; in their quiet gaze into the camera, each lasting a long time, we seem to get a sense of each character.
Some of my favorite moments of the film were those focusing closely on small objects: a font, some fruit, a few leaves, water dripping; light streams, illuminates, has an active presence in the landscape and interior spaces. We are asked to look closely, to pay attention, to see the world as full of aesthetic pleasures.
But what interested me most intellectually about Into Great Silence was sparked by the sole interview of the film, shown near its end, with an old blind monk. It made me aware of the similarity of different faiths, different approaches to spirituality. I find it impossible to believe, as the monk does, that everything that happens is for the good of one's soul, which Voltaire satirized in Candide, as "the best of all possible worlds". But other words of this old monk were very evocative. He spoke of the idea of the present: "The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past, solely the present prevails". I have been doing some yoga and meditation (using this dvd) to calm my sometimes annoyingly anxious mind, and being in the present moment is essential.
Also from the monk: "The closer one brings oneself to God, the happier one is". I had not expected to hear about happiness from a hermit monk. This too tied into a Buddhist prayer:
May all beings find love and peace within themselves.And from a third faith tradition, the nonconformist 19th century minister and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay "Self Reliance"
May all beings find peace with each other.
May all beings be happy.
These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. ....But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.