Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Die Grosse Stille

Well, I feel as if I've just made a day of recollection - and the rather unusual means of doing this was a small cinema on the fourth floor of the Barbican Centre. I had a free evening so I decided to catch Die Grosse Stille (translated as Into Great Silence) while it's being shown in London.

Now, this is not a film to go to if you have a bad cough or if you're going to arrive late. I've never experienced such silence in a film auditorium (thank God there was no popcorn for sale) - and most people left in silence.

According to the programme notes that we were given by the attendant, this film is about time: 'the silence of the piece and the focus on the repetitive rituals of monastic life, heighten awareness of time.' In his beautifully-written account of visiting monasteries, A Time to Keep Silence (1957), Patrick Leigh Fermor writes:

Time passes in a monastery with disconcerting speed. Except for the great feasts of the church, there are no landmarks to divide it up except the cycle of seasons; and I found that days, and soon weeks, were passing almost unperceived. The speed of this temporal lapse is a phenomenon that every monk notices: six months, a year, fifteen years, a lifetime, are soon over and, as I found it easier to talk to them [the monks of St Wandrille de Fontanelle], the only regret I heard was that they had delayed so long in the world before coming to the Abbey.
The film, though, is chiefly about the search for God - and it is evident that the monks of the Grande Charteuse have found Him through the silence and discipline of their lives. An apt quotation repeated throughout the film is: 'O God you seduced me and I am seduced.'

The film is a great advert for the Carthusian Order and the monks come across very well and destroy the stereotype of a fanatical monk, completely out of touch with the world. There are some charming 'human' moments - such as the brother feeding the monastery cats or the scene of monks joyfully playing in the snow.

Two little niggles: firstly, a non-Christian viewer who has no prior experience of monasteries would probably not leave the cinema particularly enlightened - there is no explanation of the Carthusian vocation, the meaning of the Religious Life or the history of the magnificent Grande Chartreuse. However, I'm sure many viewers will be inspired to find out more and visit the official Carthusian website.

Secondly, if I'd been the Director, I would have made the film shorter. Beautiful though it is, 162 minutes is too long for a documentary with virtually no dialogue. The people around me were growing quite restless in the last half hour. But then, since most of them probably live busy, largely secular lifestyles, such total immersion into the 'great silence' of the Chartreuse will be fruitful - it certainly did me good!

A rather strange thing happened on my journey home. As I waited for a bus just outside the Barbican Underground station, I noticed the street sign behind me: Carthusian Street. I suddenly remembered that the site of the pre-Reformation London Charterhouse was a stone's throw from the Barbican. So, I made a quick pilgrimage to Charterhouse Square and the monastery buildings, many of which still survive (including the gatehouse). I said a prayer to St John Houghton and the Carthusian Martyrs. And my prayers were swiftly answered - a Number 56 bus came into sight as soon as I got back to the bus stop!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wowie, that's exciting stuff! I hope to see it very very soon myself - great you enjoyed it!

11:32 pm  
Blogger Father John Boyle said...

Thanks for the review. Am going to see it Wednesday at the Barbican with a couple of other clergy.

12:25 am  
Blogger chattr said...

There's an image of 'a cloister, a [Carthusian] priest-monk, and dappled sunlight' you might enjoy, at the Dutch site


the direct link to the image is


12:41 am  
Blogger Terry Nelson said...

Wonderful review! I can't wait until it is released here.
I spent a month with the Carthusians when seeking my vocation - it is heaven on earth.

12:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw it this weekend and agree it was a jem. I also agree it was a migth to long, or rather too much time was spent filming snowflakes out of focus rather than the monks.

I thought that given the director was forbidden to add any narrative it had a very impressive progression to it, shot over the seasons.

9:28 am  
Blogger Matt said...

Very interesting review. Perhaps the restlessness provoked by the length of the film is not such a bad thing. It gives people an inkling of the fundamental challenge posed by the Carthusian life--learning to spend a life time sitting in silence and doing nothing.

2:35 pm  
Blogger Aelred said...

Thank you for the review Fr Nicholas and I look forward to the movie being released in Australia - it's got to New Zealand so far.

I have spoken to our local art house chain and offered to open the movie with a short talk which I thought could then be duplicated for other cinema goers.

When I lived in the UK I went to Vespers at Parkminster when I could and spent a day at the monastery.

I enjoy the elegance of your writing and had no idea that Carthusian saints had such leverage with bus companies.

Aelred aka

Fr Nicholas
Mission Australia Chaplain
South Australia

11:16 pm  
Blogger Mary Jane said...

I'm looking forward to seeing the film when it's released in the USA and I believe they've found a distributor. The restlessness in the face of silence reminds me of a retreat I went on once. The organizer had to drive one retreatant to the bus stop after a single night of silence. When advised that she would adjust and learn a great deal about God and herself, the retreatant said, "No thanks."

2:10 pm  
Blogger chattr said...

The Internet Archive today made available Charterhouse in London : monastery, mansion, hospital, school, by Gerald S. Davis (1921).

4:24 pm  

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