I say ostensibly, because it is actually a great deal more and less than that. Like the lives of these monks themselves, this film is a meditation on silence. If you are looking for a typical documentary, with history facts and figures, a stirring orchestral soundtrack, and the earnest voice of Ken Burns or James Burke, you will, I fear, be sorely disappointed.
The film instead documents in the purest sense. The camera follows the monks through the routine of their day and the seasons. They pray, they work, they eat; they do all the ordinary things you might expect a monk to do. But these monks do them in silence.
This film is two hours forty five minutes, of which there are perhaps fifteen minutes total of interview and dialogue.
Instead we hear the ordinary sounds of the world, sounds so common we normally don’t hear them at all. In the darkened theatre, however, the shuffling of feet and the opening and closing of doors echo in the seats and begin to take on meaning beyond mere words. We hear the monks at chapel, chanting the hours. We hear birds in windblown trees, singing the days. And the bells, always the bells calling the monks and the audience to prayer.
The rasping sound of scissors cutting cloth was positively terrifying.
A handful of people in the audience couldn’t stand the silence. They left.
The film is, as you might expect, intensely visual. We explore the faces of the monks as if they were the surfaces of alien worlds. Sometimes the camera will focus on an odd bit of the monks’ world; the warm eggshell plaster wall of a room, the soft red glow of the tabernacle light in the darkened chapel, the stark white of snow, the intense green of the springtime garden.
At some point, it began to dawn on me that the film was not just a meditation on auditory silence, but also on visual silence. Silence isn’t quiet by any means; there are always ambient sounds in nature because nature is alive and moving all the time. The silence we seek is the silence in our own heads and own hearts so that we may listen for God in the breeze.
In the same way, the world of these monks is visually silent. Set amid the stunning beauty of the alps, Grande Chartreuse is a world of stone and plaster and wood, of natural colours and shapes rough-hewn to human purpose. But if we think for a moment that this is a stark black and white and grey place of puritan sensibilities, the camera invites us to look closer.
Because in even the most basic things, there is a meticulous attention to detail that I found breathtaking.
Wooden floors are carefully inlaid in stately patterns. We catch a glimpse of a ceiling, painted with portrait cameos of long ago abbots. The seats in the choir are intricately carved.
And this meticulous attention to detail doesn’t stop with the stately and the permanent. We see the monks exercise this intense mindfulness in everything they do, whether it’s carefully fixing a hiking boot or measuring and cutting wood for the stoves or digging the snow from the garden. They are careful; they are methodical; they are living the hell out of the moment they’re in.
What a contrast this was when we walked out of the theatre onto University Street in Seattle, with its cacophany of colour and noise. Every human projecting their lifestyle and image and style in what they wore and how they talked. Constant talk. Bright clashing colour. Jarring street noise. Everyone and thing projecting noise.
I was disoriented and had a hard time taking it in. Like I was stoned. It was just too much to process.
In fact, I rapidly discovered that the only way to function was to ignore huge swaths of it, to just not see the danger green dumpster in the alley or the constant crush of faces desperately trying to project their uniqueness.
I found I could only function in the city when I deliberately discarded that silence and mindfulness that we had just spent three hours cultivating. Ultimately, this film is not really a documentary about monks at all, but rather a damning indictment of the pace and frenzy of the modern world.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
(1 Kings 19:11-12)