This film requires a tremendous amount of patience. It’s about twelve or so monks inside the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order in France. There’s no score, except for when one monk plays an organ for about two minutes, and some nice chanting. Most of the film is silent, with very long periods of silence, sometimes broken by the occasional creak of floorboards or chanting or bells, and very little dialogue. There was also the sound of skittles smattering on the floor of the theater, or people chewing their popcorn, which does seem quite loud while watching this film by Philip Groning.
I could tell Mr. Groning felt each bit of footage he captured was profound. Each shot is like a photograph. A moving photograph. But it’s repetitive, and he uses the exact same shots over and over again. He didn’t know which ones to edit out. And some he liked so much he used them three times! I think that’s boring, and shows bad spacing skills. I found it interesting that he placed each monk in front of the camera, and took a moving portrait of them, like a Warhol portrait. That was interesting, but unoriginal. I would have preferred more interviews with monks regarding what made these men choose to lead this life. But I think it does work better without any interviews–we consider the monks on their own terms, without too much interference with their lifestyle.
Altogether this film is a kind of portrait documentary. It’s not the typical documentary. It’s also not too original. I was reminded of Baraka one too many times, and Baraka had a much better handle on spacing and effects. The subject matter was deeply interesting, however, and that’s what brought me to the theater. But Groning was unorganized and showed few intelligent filmmaking techniques. He over-extended his film. He didn’t know where to cut. We got to learn about the characters by their portraits and their actions, which seemed slightly innovative, or at least had potential to be innovative. But some of the shots and the tasks involved seemed rather meaningless. Because the director didn’t give us any interviews, or any bit of internal dialogue or narration, is it safe to judge the characters and their lifestyle based on what we saw? I believe it is, since all Groning gives us are some faces staring forward and some scenes of performing chores. We are safe to judge this lifestyle from the physiognomy, the character and the demeanor of the monks.
The monks, with their long faces, drudged around the courtyard with their backs leaned forward. A monk stands by a long rope, waiting, his long face looking downward, his eyes wandering meaninglessly. Until finally he pulls down with all his weight to ring the church bells. They ring, and then he lifts himself up again and stares ahead.
In fact, I think that’s what I got out of the film: that this life is meaningless. Because our lives are so filled with signs–just like the monks discussed–that we try to escape them. We try to escape the meaningless signs of our mundane city lives. And yet even if you live with monks you must obey a strict order that you give your life to another set of signs, Christian signs. I had a tremendous sense of man’s urge to create a meaningful set of symbols for himself, something to fix his consciousness on. The trappings of contemplative lifestyles are interesting and certainly rewarding. But does one have to be religious to obtain it? The monks seemed like rebels from the world of signs, yet they only created their own world of meaning inside those church walls. Lo, God is dead no matter where you turn!