- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

Film is a visual medium. But few of its current practitioners make their art only through images.

That’s one of the reasons the documentary “Into Great Silence” (“Die Grosse Stille”) is so astonishing. The film has very little dialogue and even less of a plot.

Yet, it’s entirely engrossing.

Writer-director Philip Groening hasn’t just created a film about the Carthusian monks. He’s created a film that actually gives an idea of what it’s like to be a member of the order, and it offers one of the best examples of the timeless screenwriting axiom — “show, don’t tell.”

In 1984, Mr. Groening sought permission to film the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the ascetic Carthusian order. They said they would consider his request and finally got back to him — some 16 years later. He spent six months living among the monks in their quarters in a valley in the French Alps, filming without using a crew or artificial lighting.

The result is a poetic film that won a Special Jury Prize last year at Sundance and was named best documentary at the European Film Awards.

The motto of the Carthusians, whose order was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084, is “The cross is steady while the world is turning.” One imagines the lives of today’s monks are hardly different from those of St. Bruno’s time, and Mr. Groening offers us a collection of the quiet moments that make up these men’s daily routines. They pray, they study, they perform manual labor. (One aspect of the monk’s existence does go unexplored: These are the men who make Chartreuse, that potent green liquor.)

They spend most of their time alone in their cells; even their meals are delivered through a door that ensures no communication. They pray together out loud each day, but for the most part, the charterhouse is silent. Mr. Groening shows us a man engrossed in prayer. The only sound is that of some distant birds and the regular movement of the man’s rosary beads. Another reads; only the back of his head and the book in front of him are visible.

There are many images here of men in prayer and reflection. Mr. Groening shows everything that happens, but explains none of it. We can muse on our own what’s behind the action, such as it is. The thoughts and feelings of this group of extraordinary men are left a strangely beautiful mystery.

****

TITLE: “Into Great Silence” (“Die Grosse Stille”)

RATING: Not rated (suitable for all audiences)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by Philip Groening. Minimal French dialogue with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 162 minutes

WEB SITE: www.diegrossestille.de/english

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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