While waiting for the box office to open, I inadvertently caught snippets of a cell phone conversation of a fellow movie goer, a man in his twenties whose soul patch and Family Guy t-shirt exuded hipness. He explained that he was waiting to see Into Great Silence because he had heard that it was a great escape from the fast-paced modern world; little did I perceive then how greatly the poor man had been misinformed. Far from being escapist fare, Into Great Silence plunges its audience into an arduous three hour journey. Stripped of comfortable and familiar movie conventions, one must actively follow the monks’ example of self-denial in order to share in their flight towards union with the great I AM, a search that slowly, cyclically draws you into the silence beyond time and rationality. The Carthusian path to God isn’t easy, even for those who only desire to vicariously participate in it for a brief three hours. There was much audible snoring and fidgeting in the theater, and slumber constantly cloyed its way into my mind and body, leaving no doubt in my mind as to the difficultly of the disciples’ call to watch with Christ in Gethsemane. In achieving that impossible task, I was aided by copious amounts of Easter jelly beans and a particularly uncomfortable chair.
The first scene begins with a close up of a monk’s faced bathed in shadow and tensed in prayer, an image which is immediately juxtaposed with an extreme close-up of a ponderously slow burning flame. This brief montage comes as close as is possible in cinema to visually depicting the soul’s ardent desire to fly towards the Light of Christ. Groening realizes the limits of his medium in capturing this ineffable subject matter, and never again uses editing to force meaning upon his viewer. He captures the Carthusian life as unobtrusively and artlessly as he can, forcing us to either sleep or uncomfortably enter into the silence, where, according to Elijah’s experience in the cave, one hears the voice of I AM. In the second scene, for example, we are shown a monk kneeling in silent prayer in a long take…an extremely long take. The viewer, after visually digesting every texture, shape, line, and lighting contrast in the composition, has no where to look—left stranded with an image that is visually exhausted. Since our eyes have no where to go, consciousness of time becomes ever more apparent; yet Groening still leaves us with that static image for minutes until we realize the truth: the monks are entering into a silence that transcends time. The movie invites us not only to observe the monk’s silent prayer with detached modern curiosity, but to actively participate and seek out that silence where God dwells.
Groening restrains the aural content he presents us, letting nothing distract us. When one is confronted with a rare spoken spiritual monologue, it’s evident that it was included for a vital reason. The first monologue we hear consists of a monk reading St. Basil’s explanation of the Trinity, a passage which explains the ultimate simplicity and transcendence of that divine mystery. Through this rare aural stimulation, Groening invites the audience to further enter into silence, which, reflecting the nature of the Trinity, is entirely transcendent and inaccessible to reason yet possesses a divine simplicity.
Throughout this journey beyond reason and time, Groening continually reintroduces the images of the same expressionless monks; yet each time we come across them, we sense a change that is not evident in the austere exterior. The encounter with the light of Christ has transformed them. Our suspicions are confirmed until the very end, when an older monk authentically describes his indescribable joy in knowing and loving Christ, an ecstasy that even death is unable to shake.
Into Great Silence is a torturous movie for anyone who cannot watch anything that doesn’t abide by conventional artistic and plot film mores. At times during the three hour marathon Groening seems to get carried away with the eccentricity of his movie, and its spiritual momentum dissipates. This can be aggravating for even a patient Christian viewer; yet, if one forgives Groening’s occasional excess, the movie rewards the patient heart in the end.
It also has no discernible external plot, other than the slow cyclical turning of the seasons. Even the short scripture passages Groening quotes are repetitive, seemingly leading in the audience in a cyclical rather than linear way. There is a narrative progression, however, one which is so subtle that it is easily missed. The progression traces the monk’s journey beyond time and rationality towards a transcendent Being, whose light brings about complete internal transformation and unending joy.
Into Great Silence is definitely worth the price of time, money, and effort. The potential viewer, however, should be warned of the investment before entering the theater, otherwise he or she will leave the theater better rested, but will have missed out on a great movie. I’m personally indebted to a jelly bean induced sugar high, for I would have paid $8.50 to sleep, something I could have easily done more comfortably at home.