In 1989, German documentary filmmaker Philip Groening wrote to the monks at the famed Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse, and asked if they would be willing to be the subjects of his next film. They told him they were not quite ready, but that they’d get back to him.

Sixteen years later, they did. Their stipulations were simple: no artificial light, no voiceovers or other narration, no music, no camera crew, just Groenig. Into Great Silence is the culmination of Groening’s six months living among one of the oldest religious orders in the world. The rituals of daily prayer, work, and the night prayer are the same unchanging rituals that have been performed on a day to day basis since the monastery’s founding in 1084.

I pulled this remarkable film off the shelf at the Brookline library, having totally missed its theatrical release in 2004 when it was apparently hailed as one of the best films of the year. Actually, I checked it out because the blurb on the back of the case reminded me of Matthew Arnold’s Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, perhaps his most beautiful poem after Dover Beach (so there stood Matthew Arnold with this girl…).

There are two lines that sum up Stanzas: Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born. Arnold writes about what he sees as the futility of the monks continuing to carry out their rituals of worship and daily life in the face of the industrializing, increasingly violent world outside the cloisters. He sees no rage against any dying light, just an increasingly quiet isolation and the Carthusian order becoming less and less relevant.

So, with Arnold in mind, I wanted to see the dead world for myself. Remember, no voiceovers, no natural light, no interview questions, no music to alert me as to how I was supposed to react to a scene. For an order that is committed to silence, and with a major portion of their daily worship taking place at night, the light/noise stipulations make this film so stunningly absorbing and unlike anything I’ve ever watched.

And it is just that: completely absorbing. I spent the first forty minutes or so twitching a little and thinking “is this it?” as I watched silent, hooded monks walk down stone corridors, kneel in small wooden alcoves for individual prayer and focus intently on daily reading. Gradually, my heart rate slowed to match the pace of the movie. Watching an extremely stooped old man carefully smooth wrinkles out of a yard of thick flannel for a new robe became fascinating; a young man’s eyes moving slowly over the page as he read..and read…and read was mesmerizing; watching the quality of the light change with the seasons on the stone walls of the abbey was …well, again. Completely, utterly absorbing. And very nearly silent.

Some of the only noise comes at night. Every evening at 11:30 the monks pray in their rooms, then, at 12:15, they meet for the Night Office. For hours they sing and chant in the main cathedral in cold pitch black, with only slight illumination over giant hymnals.

The seasons pass, the light on stone walls and corridors changes, the rituals stay the same. Once a week the brothers go walking in the Alps–the only conversation in the film reveals thoughtful, intelligent, humorous men arguing the finer points of their life and other similar orders. They sled in the wintertime, plant gardens in spring, have a communal (though still silent) dinner once a week. And through it all, they pray and read constantly in near-solitude. You can tell the age of the man by the stoop in his shoulders, and there are some very, very old men who have been praying for longer than I can imagine.

It is hard for me to think, as Arnold wrote, that this way of life is dead. I wouldn’t argue even that it’s selfish to leave the world behind and commit to seclusion, because there’s a certain amount of sacrifice involved in praying for hours in the middle of the night in an ancient stone church in the middle of winter. And a certain amount of beauty and comfort in some things remaining as simple, elemental and unchanged as possible. Bigger questions of god and faith I won’t even approach. At the very least this film, like Arnold’s poem, will have some resonance with me for awhile.