Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (2005) is a wonderfully poetic portrayal of life in voluntary retreat and solitude, far off any civilisation. In the region of Dauphiné to be exact, in the mountains of Chartreuse, France. To be fair, the film could have been slower. I mean, the takes could have been longer to make it look even slower. Yes, the takes are on average much longer than in other films. But what I find most interesting in this context is the importance of subject matter in the demonstration of slowness, rather than the long take (or the aesthetic in general).
Monks are not exactly in a hurry, so their presence in the film and their day-to-day life alone have an impact on the perception of how fast (or slow) the film runs. This also points to a natural way of filmmaking. You cannot cut slow activities every two seconds. Nor can you leave a car race going on for ten minutes in one long take. Just as Lav Diaz said in many many interviews: long takes come natural.
The film (narrative?) is interrupted from time to time by what we know from the silent era as intertitles. I’m not overly familiar with the Bible, but some of the titles definitely contain passages from it. Gröning never gives a source for the passages. Maybe he appeals to the familiarity of the viewer with the Bible? In any way, they set a nice simple tone to the entire film, though, so, in fact, it doesn’t matter much where exactly the passages come from.
Into Great Silence is a documentary. I should perhaps mention this, as it therefore differs from the other films I have so far reviewed this month. At the same time, it is a nice contrast to them. Gröning doesn’t seem to have a set aesthetic in mind. His shots keep changing from still to moving, from beautiful photographic double frames to pretty much medium close-ups of the monks’ faces. The latter fact is what distinguishes Silence from the “usual” slow film. While in some cases the monks are set against their environment, they are just as often portrayed in detail. Facial expressions are a means to convey meaning, and Gröning makes use of this from time to time.
The strange feeling I had about the film is the aspects of confinement and freedom. The film is set entirely in and around the monastery. We never really leave the grounds. The monks are almost always filmed with walls in the background. The framing – if we thought about it logically – could create a sense of restriction. But the strange thing is, it doesn’t feel restricted at all. Perhaps, it is the aura of the monks that made the film feel so smooth and free.
Silence kind of makes me want to go on a retreat. But not in winter. I’m not too keen on freezing while trying to calm down my mind. I don’t think it would work.