The story goes that in 1984 German filmmaker Philip Gröning contacted the Order of the Carthusians--reportedly, the strictest order of monks in the Catholic Church--about making a film on them. They said they'd get back to him. Then, 16 years later, they made their decision to let him in. As a result, Gröning moved into the order's Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps for six months, working and living alongside the monks, shooting where and whenever he had the time to do so. The result is Into Great Silence, an almost entirely dialogue-free (but hardly silent) film that already easily ranks as one of the great cinematic documents of our time.

The documentary form holds so many tricks and tropes which Gröning could have fallen back on to buttress the core of his film: talking-head interviews with the monks and outside experts, historical background, even a learned voiceover to explain to viewers the importance of what it is they're watching. The tightrope act Gröning takes on, however, requires that he simply present the experience of what life was like (or at least, seemed to be like) for these monks during the months he was there. This is much, much harder than it would seem to be.

Much of that life for the monks appears to be, of course, prayer. The monks pray numerous times a day on their own, and are often called to the chapel for worship. They walk slowly but with purpose down the monastery's three-plus-centuries' old stone hallways, shaven heads obscured under the peaked hoods of their worn white robes, their footsteps echoing amidst the clangorous quiet. (While the Carthusians don't take a vow of silence, they are encouraged only to speak when absolutely necessary, or preferably when they take their once-weekly four-hour walk outside the walls.) Gröning eschews any desire to overlay this prayer with unnecessary noise, allowing the natural noise of these men's surroundings (a faraway bird, the squeaking of a wheeled cart, that strange hum of human silence) to form the ultimately hypnotic soundtrack. On one occasion, Gröning cuts away from a monk reading to a shot of a jet airliner passing far overhead in complete silence, an astoundingly simple and effective way to illustrate the vast gulf that exists between these men and the vast majority of humanity.

The monks also work constantly, as each monastery has to be economically self-sustaining. As with prayer, Gröning follows them through their chores, whether it's gardening, cutting wood or sewing new robes. The seasons change, from deep and cold winter to a gloriously blooming spring and lush summer. Static shots of the monastery's stout stone structures and the well-nigh unbelievable beauty of the surrounding mountain wilderness help provide some sense of the quiet state of rapture the monks live in. Occasionally, Gröning cuts intertitles of appropriate scripture quotations into the film, repeating a number of them over and again (such as, "Anyone who does not give up all he has cannot be my disciple") with an appropriately incantatory quality that recalls the repetitive beauty of the monks' eerie chanting.

It's difficult not to be frustrated at times by the lack of information provided by Gröning. At one point, the monks gather to initiate two novices, who then pop up occasionally later on. One older monk appears to be sickening, with one shot practically seeming to have been taken while he was on his death bed. There is a lingering shot of a box of buttons that is beautiful enough on its own but has little meaning until one reads an interview with Gröning where he points out how the monks wasted absolutely nothing: Those buttons are from the clothing of dead monks, to be reused down through the years.

However, it remains true that what Gröning has accomplished here is, appropriately, almost beyond words. By pushing past the strictures of most documentary filmmaking and subsuming himself entirely in his subject, Gröning has created a passionately rendered filmed symphony of quietude and the passing of time that is quite unlike anything else.