I just caught Philip Gröning's extraordinary documentary Into Great Silence (2 screens and opening wider), about Carthusian monks living in a charterhouse in the French Alps. It runs just past two hours and 45 minutes and I would wager that no more than two hundred words are spoken throughout. The film merely shows the monks going about their daily business: praying, chanting, caring for gardens, shoveling snow, sawing firewood, cooking, eating, etc. I have to admit part of my enthusiasm for the film stems from the fact that it contains no talking heads or clips; I was just about ready to scream if I saw one more documentary shot in that tired old PBS format. But I was also drawn to the film's meditative rhythm.
Or is it just slow? Already some of the reviews have trudged out the word "boring" to describe the film, and certainly it's a hard sell. But why? It's apparent that Gröning doesn't have any particular viewpoint about the monks; he's not trying to sell us on their dignity or righteousness, nor is he trying to uncover some secret, seamy underbelly. He merely wishes to show them to us. And in his great, quiet stretches, a viewer can easily get lost in his or her own thoughts. Indeed, I believe that Gröning actually prefers us to get lost in our own thoughts.