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Watching Silence

A film in which nothing much happens is packing movie houses
by Carol Ann Raphael

There's a buzz in Germany about a movie in which there are barely two minutes of dialogue, no interviews, no voice-overs, no archival footage, and no sound track. In other words, a silent movie. Or, more accurately, a movie about silence.

For nearly three hours, Into Great Silence, directed by Philip Groening, tracks the lives of resident monks in one of the most ascetic monasteries in Roman Catholicism, the Grande Chartreuse. The mother house of the strict Carthusian Order, it was founded nearly one thousand years ago in the French Alps between Grenoble and Chambéry, and little has changed since then. The monks carry out their days in almost complete isolation and silence, each inhabiting a two-story cell where he works, prays, eats alone, and sleeps on a straw bed. The monks leave their cells only three times every twenty-four hours to journey down the corridor to the chapel.

This makes for a film of startling simplicity and unusual concentration. The tolling of the bells announces each activity during the tightly structured day: 8:00pm bedtime, 11:30pm rise for prayer, 12:15am lauds and matins in the chapel for two to three hours, 6:30am rise, 7:00am prayer, and so on throughout the day. A single meal is delivered at midday. There is never a full night of sleep. There is no free time. And there is no fear, according to the filmmaker who shared the monks' rigorous life over a period of six months to make his documentary of this world set apart.

Into Great Silence has become a cult phenomenon in Groening's native Germany, filling theaters and climbing the box office charts since its premiere in November 2005 to reach the rank of fifteen in movie attendance. That's a remarkable achievement for a film in which virtually nothing happens. It was awarded the World Cinema Special Jury Prize in the documentary category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and distributors are quickly acquiring the rights to show it in other European countries and in North America.

What's attracting these audiences? Unlikely that it's nostalgia for the early days of silent film. Nor does the memory of Andy Warhol's deathly boring eight hours of the Empire State Building seen from a single point of view seem likely to ignite enthusiasm in today's sophisticated cinema buffs. Could it be something akin to a recent trend to convert monasteries into chic hotels that has been sweeping through Italy, or the popularity of staying at convents instead of equally pricey hotels? That too is doubtful, since the preference for cloistered accommodations probably reveals more about the skill and ingenuity of marketers than it does about any real desire on travelers' part to experience a medieval way of life.

Groening explains that he originally wanted to make a movie about the present moment, about that single moment of time that is always “now.” Only later did he realize that he could do this by documenting life in a monastery, a place where one's relationship to time is completely altered. As he put it, “What is time for someone who knows that he will never leave this building, this cell?” After waiting sixteen years to be granted permission to enter the remote world of the Grande Chartreuse, he moved into one of the cells, participated in all aspects of monastic life, and shot his film in the two to three hours allotted each day for labor. He worked entirely on his own, with no artificial lights, no crew, nothing superfluous.

Reviewers are praising the film's poetic vision, magnificent austerity, visual splendor, and what one critic referred to as nearly “tactile” sound. When all one hears is the occasional rustling of cloth or opening of a door, the quality of sound is essential to revealing the pervasive silence in which the monks conduct their lives. Some have commented that the film becomes a literal extension of the monastery and that the theater itself embodies monastic space. It's this sense of hermetic time, of the eternal, that Into Great Silence seems to be offering moviegoers—a view into a world where the present moment is all there is.

The recognition that solitude may have a beneficial, even vital function in our busy contemporary lives is beginning to surface in other places as well. A recent internet buzz was created when a University of California neurobiologist named Leo Chalupa proposed a national day of absolute solitude. Chalupa believes an entire day spent without verbal exchange of any kind with another person would be the best antidote for our overtaxed, overstuffed brains and the ideal way to attain optimal brain performance.

A researcher at the University of British Columbia has come to similar conclusions. Psychologist Peter Suedfeld found that “people are chronically stimulated, both socially and physically” and that we “are probably operating at a stimulation level higher than that for which our species evolved.” His remedy? More time alone. And what to do during all this time alone? Two French scientists have a suggestion: listen to the silence. In their recent experiments with eleven people who did just that, who listened to the sound of silence, they discovered that such attentive listening can actually help the brain to focus.

The silence of the Carthusian monk clearly is of a different order and gravity altogether. The Carthusian monk listens for God, and silence is the condition in which this can occur; it's not the goal. But as the growing numbers of people wanting to see Into Great Silence attest to, there are rewards for taking the time to pay attention, to see and hear things precisely—whether it's a few hours of mental freedom at the cinema, improved brain performance, or finding God.

There couldn't be a better reason to go to the movies.


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This article is from
Our Ken Wilber Issue


June–August 2006