Tag Archives: Into Great Silence

10 Films for Lent

A few years ago I thought it would an interesting challenge to think of films that reflected the heart of the season of Advent. You can see that list of “10 Films for Advent” here. This year I decided to create a similar list for Lent. What makes a film “Lenten”? As I thought about it, I first thought of images: films of desert, spartan landscapes; faces of lament and suffering; gray and drab color palettes. Then I thought of tone:  somber, contemplative, quiet, yet with a glimmer of hope or a moment of catharsis. Finally I thought of themes: suffering, isolation, hunger, penance, hope. I came up with the list below (in alphabetical order).

Ballast (2008): Lance Hammer’s debut film is a quiet (indeed, sometimes silent) look at the hard times of a downtrodden family in Mississippi. Amidst the film’s pervasive squalor, destitution, and grim grayness, there is an affirmation of life and a building towards hope. It’s a film about people on the brink getting a second chance, gradually finding their bearings and ballast as they move through the mire of life’s hard knocks.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951): French director Robert Bresson’s Priest charts the everyday struggles of a young priest trying his best to follow God’s will in shepherding a small parish in rural France. Quiet, contemplative, lonely, quotidian and yet transcendent (Paul Schrader would say), Priest is a gorgeous picture of a devoted-yet-imperfect believer leaning on God in the mundane isolation of modern life.

Gerry (2002): Gus Van Sant’s avant garde film is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving deserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet the film is utterly spellbinding. The desolate, waterless wilderness is ominous but strangely beautiful.

Hunger (2008): The debut feature from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Hunger is a raw, visceral depiction of IRA leader Bobby Sands’ 1981 prison hunger strike. Less political than existential, Hunger is about self-imposed suffering for a cause. Bleak, brutal, hard to watch, Hunger nevertheless ends with a note of hope/catharsis.

Into Great Silence (2007): Philip Gröning’s film is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But all of this is appropriate for a documentary about the ascetic life of monks. The film, like Lent, is quiet, contemplative, beautiful in its simplicity and a truly worshipful experience.

L’enfant (2005): I was debating which Dardenne brothers film to include here, because I think many of their films have a Lenten feel to them. I chose L’enfant (The Child) because of its cold, stark tone and its exploration of sin, suffering and penance. The “penance” part comes really only as a hint, in the final cathartic minutes, but what a powerful climax it is.

The New World (2005): Terrence Malick’s The New World centers on the story of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), whose journey in the film is decidedly Lenten. At one point she has her own “ashes to ashes” moment when she covers her face in ash and dirt as she grieves the supposed death of John Smith. She undergoes profound suffering in the film but is beautifully resilient, learning from every up and down and growing “towards the light” like a tree even when a branch breaks off.

Of Gods and Men (2011): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in hostile world. It’s a film about joy in suffering, and the beauty of picking up one’s cross in pursuit of Christ.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): This silent masterpiece from Danish director Carl Dreyer provides an amazingly artful and moving account of the suffering and martyrdom of Joan of Arc. Shot almost entirely in close-up, the film’s striking images—especially Joan’s face—are gripping and evoke the holy, even in their spartan simplicity.

The Road (2009): John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is a dark, gray, horrifying film about suffering and survival in a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. This was actually the first film that came to mind when I thought about “Lenten films.” As dark and painful as the film is to watch, there is a quietness and slowness to it that engenders contemplation. And though 90% of the film feels like Good Friday, its hopeful ending nods in direction of Easter.

Ten Slow Films Worth Slogging Through

One of the most common complaints I hear from others when they watch the “art” films I recommend is that they are “too slow.” Indeed, it seems that our increasingly hyperactive, fast-paced culture considers any film paced slower than a John Grisham novel to be impossibly languorous. Thus, it’s an uphill battle to win over converts to such films as Flight of the Red Balloon (which I reviewed earlier this week), or anything from directors like Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant. Still, I think that if people try to sit through and attend to the beauties of these films, they will find them ultimately rewarding. Film as art (as in any art form) requires active attention and openness on the part of the audience. There are a lot of wonderful films out there that require some patience to sit through, but that reward the viewer immensely. Here are just a few (ordered by year):

Diary of a Country Priest (1954) – Robert Bresson
Bresson is one of the most widely acclaimed French auteurs, but his films are among the hardest to watch. They are about as far from the conventional Hollywood narrative as you can get. Still, there is a striking authenticity and meditative realism to the mundane worlds he portrays—especially in this beautiful film about the everyday struggles of a young priest in rural France.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973) – Ingmar Bergman
Though it is broken up into segments, this 167 minute domestic drama seems to go on and on, and in true Bergman fashion, it is an arduous, methodical descent into nihilistic flagellation. Nevertheless, the performances and themes here are utterly compelling and strikingly rendered by one of cinema’s greatest artists.

Paris, Texas (1984) – Wim Wenders
Like Gerry (see below…), this classic Wim Wenders film provides a captivating “wandering through the dessert” experience. It’s a dry, dusty, subdued sort of existential western. Harry Dean Stanton plays a broken down man, wandering the Texas landscape in search of himself. There are few words in the film, and even fewer conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But it is a memorable experience nonetheless.

Down by Law (1986) – Jim Jarmusch
This is a challenging film. More a mood piece than anything else (set in the Louisiana bayou), Down by Law eschews traditional plot and character development in favor of visual and sonic oddity. Quirkiness rarely makes for a compelling two hour experience, but this film is an exception: it’s a joy to watch. The unexpected trio of John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni are unforgettable in this film—one of Jarmusch’s best.

The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick
The challenging thing for audiences who watch The Thin Red Line is that they’ve watched too many war movies, and the understanding is that a war movie should be exciting, action-packed, and emotionally-wrenching. Personally I think Terrence Malick’s film is as emotionally-wrenching as any film I’ve ever seen, just not in the traditional ways. Give this complicated film a chance. It’s one of the most beautiful ever made.

Gerry (2002) – Gus Van Sant
This film pushes the limits of even the most patient filmgoer. The whole thing is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving desserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet—and yet—something about Gerry is utterly spellbinding.

The Son (2002) – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
“Slow” could be a designation given most all Dardenne Bros films, but they are all worth sitting through. The Belgian filmmakers have a way of withholding any catharsis for the audience until the final moments of their films, and never is this more clearly exhibited than in The Son, a beautiful relationship portrait of fathers and sons.

The Five Obstructions (2003) – Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
There were a number of Lars von Trier films I considered for this list (Dogville, The Element of Crime, etc), but I settled on this film—a documentary jointly made with Jorgen Leth—because, well, I think it needs to be seen. I’m actually not sure how anyone could call this film “boring,” but the sheer conceptual headiness of it is certainly unpalatable to many. Still, Obstructions is totally unique and features a stunning “twist” ending—if you make it that far.

Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set) (2007) – Philip Gröning

This film is the exact opposite of “commercial” cinema. It is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But it is a documentary about the ascetic life of monks, and as such, it should be a challenge to watch. But if you let yourself be still, silent, and contemplate just what it is you are watching, then Into Great Silence can become more than cinema. It can be a truly worshipful experience.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik
The most recent addition to this list goes to last fall’s Jesse James “biopic,” which turns out to be more a phenomenological contemplation than a narrative of the famous bandit’s life. Indeed, the 160 minute film leaves many wondering “when are the great shootouts and action sequences going to come?” Answer: never. But instead, you get an immersive, mood-driven photo essay; and again, a wonderful coda sequence at the end.