The checs and I watched “Into Great Silence” on Sunday afternoon. I have to admit I wondered how a movie could be made with no dialogue, no special lighting, only one camera and cameraman, and no music.
The filmmaker originally contacted the Grand Chartreuse back in the 80’s with the idea for the film……he was told ‘not now, maybe in 8 or 10 years’……it took something like 13 years for the monks to get back in touch. I cannot even imagine contacting someone who, 13 years ago, asked if they could get to know me better, and saying ‘yes, now is the time, can we get acquainted now?’ – but that’s what happened.
The monks live lives that are surprisingly like our own – praying, eating, assisting at Mass, getting a haircut. And then again, their lives are so not like ours – silence, meals in common only on Sundays and Solemnities, the cells heated with wood stoves, the habit.
I was afraid that I’d end up with permanent eye strain from trying to watch a movie with nothing but ambient lighting. Wrong again. There’s plenty of natural light in the movie to film by, and more than a few of the scenes are filmed outdoors.
Every so often in the film, the camera focuses on one of the monks for a few seconds, like a real-life portrait, almost. The monks look into the camera, their eyes bright with joy and love of God. Their skin seems to glow with a patina almost like the vessels used to hold the Body and Blood of Jesus, they shine, are holy not only because of the material with which they are made, but because they have become even more sanctified by being used for holy purposes. The monks’ skin looks the same way. A few of them look as if they are about to laugh, one or two look like they’d rather be anywhere but in front of the camera, but mostly they just…..gaze.
But for all the holiness that the filmmaker manages to capture so brilliantly, two scenes in particular embody, for me, the ideal of monastic existence. In the first, an elderly monk is filmed walking along an outdoor corridor with a dish in his hand; occasionally we hear him call out in a tender, sweet way. He enters a barn and begins to bang on the dish with a spoon; several cats come from the shadows in response to his banging and crooning. Look – he has brought them a meal, and a stuffed teddy bear to play with! The cats look at him as if he speaks their language – and perhaps he does.
In the second, we see a group of monks practically hurrying outdoors in response to some summons…..we watch them trudge across the snow-covered hillside, two by two. I wondered at this point “where are they going? What are they doing?” A short edit, and then we see them again, having reached the destination to which they have hurried: a snowy hillside, up the side of which they tramp, and then – down they come, sliding and sledding, some of then riding a sort of snowboard contraption! How like a bunch of schoolboys on a Saturday morning they look! Up to the top of the hill, then s-l-i-d-i-n-g down, a couple tumbling head over heels. The sound of manly laughter echoes off the mountains far above where they play.
I am blessed by this movie, I imagine in ways I may not know about for many years. These monks, and their counterparts the Carthusian Nuns, have reduced their lives to only what is absolutely necessary and the joy in their hearts overflows the film and seems to fill the room as you watch.