"Into Great Silence" (2) - from The Daily Telegraph (UK)

This article explains the background to the making of the film. Click here for the original article.

Monks put their lives in focus with a silent film

By Kate Connolly in Berlin
Last Updated: 1:29am GMT 11/11/2005

The strictest monastic order in Christendom has opened its cloisters to a film director for the first time, allowing him to shoot a three-hour near-silent documentary about its life. What some critics feared would be this year's most boring movie turns out to be a strangely fascinating meditation on the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps.

Into Great Silence depicts its Carthusian monks in the midst of their slow moving daily devotions and duties, from mending shoes to chopping vegetables. There are even rare moments of jollity: two monks sliding down a snowy slope in their white habits, laughing hysterically, and an elderly monk caught whispering fondly to cats.

The monks broke one of their rules recently to watch the film's final cut. According to the abbot, they laughed a great deal at themselves. Only one novice had a complaint. It had "not enough action", he thought, or so the abbot later wrote to its German director.

Philip Gröning spent 15 years gently trying to persuade the monks to let him film their routines and rituals. He was finally told "we are ready" in 2001. But he received the go ahead only on condition that he used no artificial light, added no music or commentary and came to Chartreuse, near Grenoble, on his own.

The end result's most striking aspect is its silence. There is no speech at all for the first 20 minutes, and afterwards only occasionally. What sound there is comes from throat-clearing between prayers, the wooden bell tower, the drops of melting icicles, the tailor cutting cloth for a new habit, or the monks' footsteps as they head to chapel. One elderly monk does, however, break his silence to thank God for making him blind. "I'm sure God did it for the good of my soul," he said.

The Carthusian order has 370 monks spread across the West, Latin America and Asia. On average a monk spends 65 years in his monastery. The order is a legend even within the Roman Catholic church. Theirs is the strictest form of contemplative life in the Christian world, more severe even than that of the Trappists, who also live in silence. Founded by St Bruno of Cologne in 1084, the order defines the life of a Carthusian as a long path, the sole purpose of which is contemplation.

The monks live in poverty, pray and sing Gregorian chants together but otherwise are allowed to talk only while they work - when absolutely necessary - as well as during their weekly walk together. They sleep no more than three hours at once, as even the night-time is shaped by prayer. In the film none of the monks, apart from two novices, Benjamin and Etienne, is given a name.

The monks also have a profitable sideline in making the liqueur Chartreuse, a heady brew of Alpine flowers whose secret recipe is known only to two of their number at any time. Bizarrely, Into the Silence makes no mention of this facet of their lives.

Neither have Mr Gröning nor the monks thrown any light on the reason why the film went ahead. As the order explains on its website, Carthusians have no pastoral obligation and therefore "do not receive visitors … we have neither radio nor television … such are the necessary conditions for internal silence to develop which permits the soul to stay alert and attentive to the presence of God".

The invitation to film was a coup: the last outsiders to visit the ascetic order - excluding family members - were two journalists who came almost half a century ago on condition they took no photographs.

"It was a journey into another world," said Mr Gröning, calling it "a chance to explore what time means for someone who knows that he will never leave this house and this cell. I thought it would be great to make a film where language disappears and time becomes the main channel."
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