Today’s feast of St. Bruno (1030-1101) reminds me of the time I went to see the movie Into Great Silence back in 2005. Directed by Philip Gröning, it portrays the daily life of Carthusian monks in their monastery at Chartreuse, near Grenoble in France. This was the place where St. Bruno escaped with a few companions in 1084 to live an ascetic form of religious life among steep rocks and snow-covered mountains. It remains a vibrant community of monks today, who dedicate themselves to silence, simplicity, and prayer.
I recall a friend of mine inviting me to see Into Great Silence with the warning that the movie was over two and a half hours long with only about five minutes of dialogue; the remainder of the film was in silence. I remember wondering how such a film could possibly be a commercial success. As we know, a typical movie director is looking for a good storyline, engaging characters, plots and subplots, noise, action, romance, good guys and bad guys. Success is often equated with moving audiences to the edge of their seats. Therefore, the idea of making a film/documentary with none of these ingredients seemed a huge risk to say the least.
Nevertheless, I was curious, and so I went along. The theater was packed, and there was an atmosphere of awe over the full two and a half hours we were there. No one left early. My initial fears of boredom were soon replaced by a realization that the unhurried pace of life lived by these men of God was challenging my very understanding of time as dominated by activities and deadlines. The more the film progressed, the more it drew us into the beauty and simplicity of the life led by these monks. The witness of the elderly and vulnerable monks only added to the sense of enchantment, captured by a profoundly human and moving film.