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Into Great Silence 

You really have to want to spend almost two hours and 45 minutes with Philip Gröning's documentary.

click to enlarge A Carthusian monk, on God's path
  • A Carthusian monk, on God's path
As citizens of the world, we have a moral obligation to at least try to imagine what it's like to be someone else. What is it like to live in Spain? (Not hard to imagine.) In Russia? (A little harder.) In Bhutan? (Very hard.)

And how about the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery in the French Alps where the inhabitants live virtually without words, performing the most utilitarian of tasks between periods of prayer and study?

Impossible.

So you really have to want to spend almost two hours and 45 minutes with Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence. Gröning -- who directed, produced, wrote, edited and photographed the film -- waited 16 years for these monks to welcome him, and when they finally did, he made sure that his film allowed us to experience every micro-second of their solitude.

The order of the Carthusians was founded in the 11th century, and the monastery that Gröning visits was built in 1688. There, the monks read, cut cloth to make vestments, and gather to worship. The only sounds are those of footsteps, creaking doors, a few tools, and their a cappella chants, plus the buzz of a razor to shave the heads of new members. (So yes, they have electricity, although candlelight illuminates their world.)

You can think of Into Great Silence as being meditative, but it's really not: Meditation happens inside your own head, whereas Gröning asks you to pay attention to other people. You can think of it as cultural anthropology, but there are no talking heads to explain and reflect. You have to choose to believe there's a purpose to so much isolation and solipsism. You have to decide where your moral obligation lies.

The monks of Into Great Silence speak only to pray, initiate novices, discuss theology in a sunny field, and swear fidelity to a "joyful penitence." But Gröning's visually handsome film turns their ascetic lives into aesthetic ones, and we learn nothing new about how it feels to live in such devotion. They do talk to the cats -- you knew there had to be cats -- who, more steadfast in their faith, say nothing in return. They do all of this in veneration to God -- or at least, to their God, who apparently thinks they best serve the suffering of humankind by not making things worse. They focus on the isolationist views of Christ rather than, let's say, his social work (as Mother Teresa did).

What do we gain by watching a man read a book if we don't know what he's reading and what he thinks about it? Could the very act of following him with a camera alter his thoughts, and perhaps his actions? Would you pick your nose, or unpack a wedgie, if you knew a stranger was watching? And if you don't have either of those problems, then how human can you be anyway? In silence and French, with subtitles.

Starts Fri., June 8. Regent Square

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