My life's partner pointed to the cover of the latest issue of Christian Century, which had just come in the mail: "Why Men Hate Going to Church" (the article's not yet available online, but it's summarized here). What, moi? And besides, who's the one refusing to see Into Great Silence, the German documentary on Carthusian contemplatives at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps (now playing at the Music Box)? Not yours truly, I guarantee you that . . .
And from the looks of things, not a lot of other men either—at the matinee screening I attended last weekend, well more than half of the nearly packed theater was of the Y chromosome persuasion. Not that movies are church, mind you, but doesn't this need a little explaining? Well, there's the ex-Catholic seminarian angle, the gay utopian angle ("basically the same angle" I can hear the cynics sniping), the salvation through physical ordeal angle (a bit like spring football practice), all those invidious stereotypes we've come to know and love, where biology equals destiny in whatever gender form—though the fact remains that most serious writing about religion and what's generally described as the "mystical" experience comes from the pens (and now the laptops) of men. (So forget about Hildegarde of Bingen for a moment—and Teresa of Avila, Wendy Doniger, all that category-jumping crew . . .)
But from the looks of Philip Gröning's careful if romantically inflected documentary—every image skewing toward the flatteringly pittoresque: the midnight glimmer of candles, the Caspar David Friedrich mountainscapes (almost pure screaming melodrama: a little silence please!), the scraped, hushed Morandi-like interiors, the insinuating close-ups of sphinxlike, reverential faces, every last scullery mope turned into a wizened sage—even mystical austerity carries more than a whiff of testosterone, as a kind of strenuously high-wire performance, like Stylites marooned upon his pillar. Of course Gröning privileges this cultivation of extremity, and ultimately seems flattened by it: like Mel Gibson's dumbstruck and slack-jawed believers, awed at the majesty of a flayed and beaten Christ, as opposed to the "sinister, wily" Jews—untrustworthy for the very silver of their tongues—who dare to haggle and debate (like Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the legendary Mishnaic rabbi) with an approachable/irascible divinity. Words as combative tokens, of an underlying insincerity: no wonder the monks opt for silence, the inarticulacy of the blessed. Or maybe it's just the silence of the lambs.