With the Oscars culminating last Sunday and Hollywood’s summer blockbusters yet to come, Philip Gršning’s documentary about reclusive French monks, “Into Great Silence,” offers a more poetic and abstract look at filmmaking than the average award-winner. Set against the tranquil French Alps, the quiet film follows the daily life of Carthusian monks, who seek God through silence and solitude. With no music, no narration, and no artificial light, Gršning, who worked with no crew, creates a surprisingly natural film in today’s digital effects era.
After 16 years of requests by Gršning, the Carthusians finally granted him permission to document their rituals and practices at their headquarters, the Grand Chartreuse. Gršning was transported back in time to a medieval monastery – a self-sustaining and economically independent, philanthropic institution that along with prayer, farms and produces a famous yellow liqueur from a secret recipe refined over 170 years.
A strict Catholic order founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084, the Carthusians remain silent, but hardly sedentary. Between two daily Masses, the monks perform various daily chores, including tailoring, food preparation, and cleaning, spiritual reading, prayer, and sleep in only three hour intervals.
They are allowed to speak if necessary for the completion of tasks and on their four-hour walks once a week. These walks help promote unity and brotherhood as well as healthy well-being. It’s ironic, then, when on one such walk, the monks stop to sit, joking, laughing and gossiping about other monastic orders before they return to the chapter house.
It’s Gršning’s accuracy in storytelling along with this entwined humor that won his documentary the Sundance World Cinema Special Jury Prize this year. In interviews, he says that his film is more about time than silence, or rather, the loss of language. Devoid of dialogue, the element of time in the film slides to the forefront. He carefully captured the changing seasons as a parallel to the rigid schedule of work and prayer to reinforce the repetitive nature of the monk’s days throughout their lives.
But against the innovativeness of Gršning’s theme, his technique failed to compete. His jumbled camera-work and incorporation of too many filming methods, at times, leaves the viewer confused as to how exactly he meant to mirror the silence through cinematography. And at 162 minutes, the perplexity and occasional subtitles – when the monks do speak, it’s only in French or Latin – prove to be a bit overwhelming.
Just one week after its New York City premiere, UCSB will host its West Coast debut, Monday at 7:30 at Campbell Hall. For tickets and information, phone 893-3535 or visit the Arts & Lectures box office.