Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Renowned documentary on monastic life makes US debut

Film offers glimpse into the lives of Carthusian Monks

New York, Feb 7, 2007 / 11:53 am (CNA).- A feature-length documentary on monastic life, which has had unexpected success on the big screen in Europe and Canada, will be released in theatres across the United States this month.

“Into Great Silence” is a nearly three-hour film, by German director Philip Groning, on life inside the Grande Chartreuse — the great, historic Carthusian monastery in the French Alps.

The film was released in France on Dec. 20, and had 18,500 viewers in its first week. According to La Croix, more than 120,000 moviegoers saw the film in a very limited number of French theatres.

“Into Great Silence” is described as a “very strict, next-to-silent meditation on monastic life in a very pure form.” The documentary does not include any interviews, commentaries or music, except for the monks’ chanting. The narrative relies on rhythm, on sound and movement.

This is the first film ever made about life inside the Grande Chartreuse and is the result of a longstanding and trusted relationship between Groning and the General Prior. The last photos of the place were taken in 1960, when two journalists were allowed inside the monastery, provided no monks were depicted.

Groning first had the idea for the film 21 years ago. He met the Carthusians for the first time 19 years ago. When the director first pitched his film idea to the monks one year later, they said it would be too early to make the film. They had told the director to hold off for about 10 or 13 years. The monks finally called Groning five years ago, asking if he was still interested in making the film.

Groning spent a total of six months living with the monks, between 2002 and 2003, during which he filmed, recorded sound, and edited the feature length film. He took part in daily life there, and lived like a monk in a cell. “[I] took part in this incredible balance between seclusion and community,” he said.

The director admitted that it was not easy at all to write about a film with nearly no words. “At some point, this film took on form, became a monastery – space and not a narrative,” he said.

“Basically, a ‘normal’ film always works with language – and language overlays time,” the director said. “I think that the most profound experience a viewer can make when watching a film is to get a feel for time.”

“Usually this experience is masked by the story. In a film about silence – a ‘silent’ film – this experience of time is swept up to the surface. Nothing detracts from it,” he continued.

“And this, in turn, is directly connected to the way the monks live: in an absolutely rigid temporal structure that lays down when something has to be done and the rules according to which it has to be done.”

A shorter version of the film has also been cut for international TV sales; a book of photographs and a CD release of chanted masses and services will be created. The film was made with a budget of over 700,000 Euro.

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