High in the French Alps, the sombre toll of a bell echoes across the snow. Hooded figures scurry silently through medieval passageways, their pale capes billowing behind. The only human sound inside the Grande Chartreuse, a 17th-century monastery, is the rustle of clothing and footfalls on the stone floor. Wordless prayer is conducted in solitary cells, with just a small fire for warmth. The monastery is home to a Carthusian order of ascetic and largely silent Catholic monks.
The German film director Philip Groening spent time living with the monks and filmed a way of life that has barely changed for 1,000 years. The result, Into Great Silence, is two hours and 40 minutes long, without music or narration. It contains only a few minutes of dialogue and chanting.
When negotiating with film distributors to have his film shown in Britain, Groening was told there would be little space for it. It was beautiful and original, but audiences would not cope with something that required a level of discipline not dissimilar to that shown by the film's subjects. Without drama or obvious narrative, it becomes like a meditation. "I wanted to make a film that became a monastery, rather than depict one. I wanted the audience to experience how time slows down and how that effects their state of mind," he says.
Critics confessed their boredom and gave it an average two stars. The film was booked for limited screenings at a few independent cinemas across the country - after which its life on British screens was expected to be over. Then, the telephones started to ring. The film's UK distributor and cinemas such as London's ICA were contacted daily by members of the public inquiring where they could see the film about the monks.
"The amount of calls we received was entirely unexpected. We were contacted by all kinds of people," says Kate Gerova of Soda pictures. The ICA responded by rebooking the film for an extra two weeks. It was the same story in Birmingham and Liverpool, and is showing in mainstream cinemas across Italy, France and Germany.
"I'm not sure why this has happened," says Groening. "My hope is that it brings the audience to their own inner space. The monastery is a place where you encounter yourself. People have told me how they unexpectedly started to cry as they watched."
Anne Veal, 69, recently watched the film. She says: "I was deeply touched by the simplicity and sincerity of the monks' relationships. They may rarely speak but the way they were with one another was genuinely caring. I loved watching them playing in the snow, which was something I didn't expect. I felt privileged to have seen this."
Groening's patience with his project has bordered on the divine. He first asked to film inside the Grande Chartreuse in 1984. Nineteen years later, the General Prior agreed - so long as Groening didn't use artificial light or bring an assistant. …