Some movies are designed to create an experience rather than convey information, and how viewers react to those movies depends greatly on how much they appreciate being where they're taken. Cinematic "experiences" don't get much more uncompromising than Philip Gröning's documentary Into Great Silence, which spends more than two and a half hours recording the rituals of Carthusian monks in the French Alps. Gröning provides no voiceover, no onscreen titles aside from a few Bible verses, and no soundtrack save what the monks sing or say. (Though they've taken a vow of silence, the monks are allowed to converse once a week, on Sunday walks.) The idea of Into Great Silence is to plunge viewers into the contemplative, solitary state that the monks enjoy—or perhaps endure.
But there's nothing else to Into Great Silence, and anyone who comes to it looking for some insights into why a man would choose a life of hard labor and prayer will likely leave disappointed. Even if the monks were interested in discussing themselves—and they probably aren't—Gröning is there at the monastery as a non-obtrusive observer, not as a journalist. Any sense of history or explanation has been treated like a worldly possession and left outside the confines.
Instead, we're asked to take in long close-ups of faces and quiet images of people working, some of which are strikingly shot, but a lot of which are mundane and—by necessity—underlit. In that atmosphere, the sounds of crackling fires and shifting bodies become amplified, and each sung prayer rings with clarity. And when the monks play with a cat, or sled down a hill, or debate whether it's appropriately respectful to God to wash their hands, the glimpses of humanity make the austerity stand out all the more.
Still, it's hard to watch Gröning's lone interview—with a blind monk, talking about mortality—and not wish that he had made more of this rare opportunity to pick the brains of inaccessible men. How do they regard each other? What do they regret? Is it really a selfless act to remove yourself from the world at large? As a place to enter and meditate, Into Great Silence is imminently worthy, but as a documentary, it doesn't do enough to probe the meaning of the quotation Gröning returns to repeatedly: "Oh Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced."