Sunday, May 06, 2007

the most beautiful film ever made?

Quite possibly. I am, of course, talking about Into Great Silence, which Fr Nelson has just reviewed over at Theology of the Body, and has been receiving critical plaudits and accolades left and right. That's as it should be.

I didn't say it was the "best" movie ever made, but possibly the most beautiful. I stand by that. Mainly because a film depicting people so utterly given to the Lord can't help but be beautiful, because the lives depicted are beautiful. Another striking thing about the film is how normal the brothers seem, and how happy.

Mainly I second everything Fr Nelson said. I would also add that you need to be ready to see this movie. Don't expect a typical popcorn-gobbling, grab-you-by-the-throat cinema experience. This film seduces you. First of all, there is no soundtrack. In fact, as the title suggests, there are long stretches (maybe ten minutes) with hardly a sound. And there's maybe a grand total of seven or so minutes of actual dialog in the whole, nearly three hour thing.

I lived in monasteries for a year. Watching the film felt like life in a monastery. You get antsy. You get introspective. Little details take on real or imagined significance. Periodically something intensely beautiful (usually something chanted) breaks onto the scene. You notice the weather. You become aware of being forced into a slow, subtle rhythm.

Formally, the film reinforces this "feeling of monasticism" (for lack of a better phrase). There are little passages of scripture and the Fathers periodically thrown onto the screen, e.g. "You seduced me... and I was seduced" or "Whoever does not renounce all that he has... cannot be my disciple." These sorts of passages are repeated from time to time, without commentary, and without obvious relevance to what is on the screen immediately before or after they appear. Their effect in the mind is sort of like an antiphon in the psalter. The meaning is not immediately obvious, or directly relevant to the psalm or canticle being recited. You must sit with it, and let the connections form themselves in your consciousness very slowly.

The film begins in darkness, and moves to the chapel. You notice a red light in the distance. It flickers. You come to realize, as the brothers begin to chant Mattins, that it is the sanctuary lamp, symbolizing the sacramental presence of the Lord in the tabernacle. Again, there is no commentary. You are left to percolate in the slow realization of the significance of this flickering red lamp: that Christ is literally in this place, and in this singing. Again at the end of the film, as the credits roll, there is no sound but the occasional creaking of the floor as the brothers adore Christ in darkness; and again, there is nothing on the screen but the flickering red sanctuary lamp in the distance, formally announcing the mystery of Emanuel, God with us.

The film can be frustrating to watch. But what I realized is that the experience of frustration and impatience was a manifestation of a defect in me, not the film.

The whole thing is breathtakingly beautiful and very, very moving. I saw it first on Good Friday and was blown away. Whatever you have to do to make it happen: get ready, and go see this movie.

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