By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Philip Gröning’s “Into Great Silence,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]
It might seem like a daunting challenge, for the filmmaker as well as the viewer: a 2 1/2+-hour portrait of a French vow-of-silence monastery that does not mitigate the quiet and the stillness with narration, interviews, gimmickry, etc., but instead embraces the void, and acts more or less like a monk itself, avoiding stimulus and achieving a kind of state of grace by observation and contemplation alone. But German filmmaker Philip Gröning’s “Into Great Silence” is an arthouse hit all over, pulling in many more ticket-buyers than scores of other, more audience-engineered, star-packed “specialty” films, including “Reservation Road,” “Sleuth” and “The Flying Scotsman.” How could this be, for a digitally shot movie that has less “going on” in it than a Warhol movie or a video helicopter travelogue of France? Gröning got into the Grande Chartreuse monastery with only himself and a camera, and stayed for six months, shooting the monks young and old praying, doing chores, hymning, never inserting himself into their routine but rather just observing it, as if in a tangible search to find and document the secret of their purified, simplified life.
And surely it has been the promise of that lifestyle that has lured audiences, often for repeat viewings. Gröning’s gorgeous film, without trying very hard, makes a seductive case for the monk’s ascetism, nestled as it is in the French Alps (holy smokes, does Gröning know how to shoot with available light; the countryside is vacation porn, while the interiors, far from being dark and grim, are always saturated with golden morning rays). Imagine: a life virtually without noise, rushing, time constraints, busyness, electronics (though one monk is glimpsed doing the books on a laptop), distraction, upheaval, media, advertising, hipness, competition, crassness, irrelevancies. Instead, you have close contact with the earth, genuine attention paid to constructive tasks, and the time to do nothing at all but concentrate on your God, your soul, your clear intentions. It looks a lot like bliss, though the monks do not seem to be a particularly joyful lot they are, for the most part, serious and searching, undeterred by the camera’s daze from focusing their energies inward.
For all of Gröning’s patience, and ours, the film remains fatally on the outside (of course), and the director compensates, as if in frustration, by capturing the dust in the sunlight, the trees in the wind, the countryside’s animals on the roam. There’s a fascinating tension in the film between what Gröning wants to show us and exactly how little he can that is the point, after all, of the monastic life, that what happens in the material world is irrelevant. Yet it’s all you can film. The technology of cinema is, therefore, standing in for spiritual struggle itself, the desire for the atheists and agnostics and wannabe devotees among us to genuinely commune with the heavens, and our straining failure to accomplish the task. (The reviews for the film have been wildly prone to raw-nerve hyperbole.) Do the monks of Grande Chartreuse know God? Or are they in effect refining their minds toward enlightenment, like good Buddhists? Or are they pitiable, self-deceiving outcasts? They’re not talking, and we’re free to impose what we wish upon their silence. The DVD includes hours of additional footage, and how much you’ll be up for (even the segment on the making of Chartreuse liqueur) is probably contingent on your need for spiritual pathfinding.
In another, more worldly territory: only a handful of African films, so far, are worth the high shelf, including several of Ousmane Sembène’s, Souleymane Cissé’s “Yeelen,” Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Hyenas,” Faouzi Bensaïdi’s “A Thousand Months,” Nadir Moknèche “Viva Laldjérie.” And Roger Gnoan M’Bala’s “Adanggaman” (2000), an Ivory Coast historical micro-epic that claims to have been the continent’s first movie about the slave trade, as it was experienced on African soil, where the victims and enslavers were both native peoples. Gnoan M’Bala doesn’t have to mention contemporary Congo, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone or any number of other self-immolating nations to make his movie’s point; the spectacle of tribesmen hunting and slaughtering each other for Western profit says enough. So much for our historical sense of mythic dualities, good and evil, white and black it’s significantly unsatisfying to be instructed that for centuries Africans were captured and sold by gold-lusting, bloodline-righteous Africans. Still, the film’s characters don’t talk race, they just run, beginning with Ossei (Ziable Honoré Goore Bi), a young warrior in love with a slave girl his father won’t allow to muddy the family’s lineage. After a raid by painted, spear-wielding “amazons” wipes out the village, the survivors are marched to the village of King Adanggaman (Rasmane Ouedraogo), an archetypal African plundercrat happily shilling off humans for English rum and rifles. The filmmaker paints the pig-pile politics of hierarchies vividly “Stinking beasts!” is a common slur across the board, between more than four distinct social levels, each trying to exploit the one beneath. (The movie uses up to five distinct languages, plus French.) But since it is color-blind, the movie dismisses race and even tribal grudgery, leaving only the Moloch of capitalism.
“Into Great Silence” (Zeitgeist Films) and “Adanggaman” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.