Into Great Silence

Consider the analogy of the sunbeam:

“Whoever feels its kindly light rejoices as if the sun existed for him alone, yet it illuminates land and sea and is master of the atmosphere. In the same way, the Spirit is given to each one who receives him as if he were the possession of that person alone”.

Just as the sun enlightens our path and remains our source of life, so too does the Spirit work by intimately abiding in our hearts. Into Great Silence portrays this theological truth through scenes that prompt the viewer on an inward search; those void depths of our heart and mind that we dare not venture. Tucked away in the French Alps lies an obscure monastery of the Carthusian order. The monastery’s seclusion cultivates comparably distant dispositions within its’ monks, guiding the viewer on a transformative journey of contemplation. Isolated from the outside world, these men enclose their minds from external influence through the practice of inner retreat. For it is only by dwelling in silence that we are able to attend to the voice of the Spirit who dwells within us.

Although the movie appears to fixate on the mundane nature of a contemplative life, Into Great Silence evokes the transcendental from simplicity. Walking alongside a cloister of French monks in their daily preoccupations, the viewer is prompted to find the eternal amidst the ephemeral. With an opening scene centered on an elderly man sitting solemnly in the darkness of the night, the viewer is compelled into his solitude. As our eyes roam the profile of his weathered expression, we see that his hands are loosely folded and hovering close to his lips; a prayerful posture. We cannot help but to wonder what it is that forbids his mind from sleep. As the camera concentrates on his stoic gaze, voyeuristic feelings are evoked within the viewer. With eyes encroaching on his privacy, the viewer in turn becomes increasingly aware of the pervading silence. Over the course of the film the viewer is immersed into this intimacy of inner retreat; as we watch these men go about their day to day, we are invited to explore this seemingly desolate monastery and begin to wonder how it is that these men can survive the silence. While at first glance this monastery and its monks seem lonely and lifeless, we slowly witness their hidden vitality and vigor. While an outside scene shows the monastery buried in a blanket of snow, the distinction between loneliness and aloneness is introduced. The frigid landscape characterizes the monastery as lifeless. However, even within the confines of a restrained monastery, truth loudly reverberates from within.

In similar scenes of silence the viewer begins to notice contrasting thematic elements. Although the elderly man in this initial scene sits enveloped by the night, sounds of burning wood puncture the reticence of the room. Although the fire is not in view, we hear the sound of light amidst the darkness. It is here that we are given a first glimpse at one of the major themes of the film: darkness as holding light. While darkness is present, the crackling fire in the background leads the viewer to realize that light is close by. This relationship between darkness and light is further explored as we analyze his detached expression. His exterior portrayal of aloofness cues the viewer to engage in contemplation. As he explores those abysmal alcoves of his mind, the viewer is lead into further reflection. Physically surrounded by darkness, he seems also to be venturing those dark landscapes of his heart. Through his silence the viewer is swayed to discover the practice of solitude. In observing the man’s stillness we are revealed the sanctity of the light within us. While those vacant places of our heart that we have not traversed seem lifeless, light may yet be found.

The notion that light may be found in darkness similarly presents itself in myriad scenes where days and nights are contrasted; guiding the viewer toward a realization that darkness and light are not mutually exclusive. In one particular scene, the film focuses solely on the night sky. At first hand we only see a blank canvas, but as time passes we begin to distinguish the faint light given by the stars. The point is further extrapolated when the camera intentionally hovers over beams of sunlight that cascade across the walls and floor of a particular room. Although the camera first focuses on the rays of sunlight, it eventually shifts to the shadows that the light has subsequently created, suggesting the interdependent relationship between the two. However, perhaps the most telling scene where we fully realize the filmmaker’s penchant for these contrasting elements is when night arrives and the monks congregate in a pitch-black room to sing. It is in this moment that the camera poignantly focuses on a piece of sheet music, the song chosen fittingly titled, Nocturno. The men have assembled around a single candle placed in the center of the room. As their voices penetrate the silence, the camera takes great lengths to focus on the candles’ flame. With the monastery’s devotion to contemplation and solitude, this scene seems to hint at a greater truth: the light of the Spirit dwelling within the void spaces of our hearts.

Another theme throughout the film that caters to this truth appears in moments where our ears are drawn to the rhythms of silence. While the film does not hold a musical score, the filmmaker strives to intensify certain sounds at precise moments. At the forefront of the film we watch as snow falls to the ground around the monastery. The picture appears blurry, prompting the viewer instead to listen. As soon as our eyes have noticed that the scene itself isn’t very intriguing, our ears can now attend to the sounds of the falling snow. Taking a “still life” perspective, our attention is drawn to the sounds of the moment rather than the actual picture itself. In another scene the viewer observes an empty corridor with faint footsteps heard in the background. In another, we observe a monk writing in a notebook, yet oddly only the sounds of a ticking clock can be heard. This scene transitions into a picturesque landscape of the French Alps, but surprisingly we hear only the sound of pages turning; what we can assume to be the pages of the Bible that the monk was studying earlier. In still another scene we witness leaves floating softly to the ground, yet hear the austere sound of bells piercing through the air. With sounds that appear incongruent with their associated pictures, one cannot help but to think that the filmmaker is purposely tuning our ears to something greater. Within these otherwise silent moments, the film has adjusted our ears to cryptic rhythms; perhaps the means by which we find the light within ourselves.

These contrasting themes are summed in a scripture presented at the beginning and end of the film:

“The Lord passed by, then a great wind tore the mountains apart, and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but He was not in the wind. After that there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After that came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.After the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Through contrasting themes of darkness and light and silence and sound, the filmmaker invites us into inner retreat. For it is only by the practice of solitude and inner retreat that we are able to attend to the still small voice who dwells within us.

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