Top positive review
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Demanding time and commitment, but well worth watching.
on 28 April 2007
This is not a film to be rushed, any more than the Carthusian way of life itself. The monks at La Grande Chartreuse live in solitude high in the Alps, in a life of prayer and quiet almost unknown elsewhere in the Western Christian tradition. In an order where the monks are not renowned for their singing, and whose communities are really hermits banded together, what we are invited to look at is spirituality as sight and as hearing in ways that in a fast-paced, media-dominated world we may miss. We see the changing seasons in a monastery in the Alps: the oblique light on a stone wall, the gentle drip of water, the crackle of a fire in a rickety stove. All seen and experienced slowly, with a minimum of dialogue. This means that, when we hear the monks singing in their long night services the canticle "O all you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord" and we see, using time-lapse filming, a night's worth of stars wheeling over the mountain valley where the monastery is, we get somewhere close to the central intent of the film: how to portray a life where the drama is unseen, where the action is interior, where time works in a different way than we might expect. Philip Groening underlines this by repetition of phrases from the Bible, and by footage of some of the community sitting silent in front of the camera; we can guess, but cannot know what they are thinking or feeling.
A bio-pic of a religious hero or founder may (or may not) make a good film, but at least it's a narrative, and as viewers we are comfortable with narrative, have standards against which we can judge the effectiveness of the storytelling &c. Groening avoids this by looking at the lives of the Carthusian monks in terms of their aesthetic. In a curious way this gives a very deep insight into the almost silent life of the community. The film is non-judgmental, although my heart went out to the lay brother and the cats and followed the choir monk ringing the bells anxiously when he was late. I don't know if it makes me want to be a Carthusian, but I do know that when I've watched this film I am conscious of those everyday sights and sounds in my life so much more.
There are creaks in the film, where restrictions on filming or (very occasionally) poor quality of images take the edge off the experience, but they are part of the event. It is, for me, simply one of the best films I own, but it's not an easy film to watch, demanding time and attention: things that would appear to be at the heart of the Carthusian experience.