Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Piety: Martin Scorsese's Silence

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence.

No question: Martin Scorsese's religious epic, Silence, is aptly named. Unlike his last feature, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), with its frenetic, speed-freak pacing, or the pilot of the HBO series, Vinyl, where the editing rhythms were so percussive that they became assaulting, Scorsese's new picture unfolds with a quiet and solemn reverence, as if we were in church, and the atmosphere is hushed. Silence has a lulling seductiveness going for it (the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is both lush and vibrant), so it's clear that the asceticism of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel has drawn the director – once again – into a sojourn in search of spiritual values and truths, but the drama itself turns out to be no more substantial than in The Wolf of Wall Street. If the sensational highs of sex, cocaine and larceny were the driving force of that picture, rather than an attempt to bring the audience to a dramatic understanding of how Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) swindled his way to the top of Wall Street, the piety of religious faith becomes the drug of Silence, substituting for a rendering of spiritual belief. Scorsese may be aiming for the formalist poetry of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), where a man of God gets tested by those who reject him, but the result is actually closer to Carl Dreyer's Ordet (1955) where spirituality is reduced to pedantic dogma.

Silence also has a streak of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness running through it. In that novella, an introverted sailor, Marlow, gets sent up the Congo River to find an ivory trader, Kurtz, who has "gone native." In the course of his journey he grows obsessed with Kurtz as the river leads him like a magnet towards his destination. In Silence, as in Endō’s novel, the journey provides a somewhat different dynamic than Conrad's. In the 17th century, two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), head off to Japan, where Christians are being forced to renounce their faith or face the horrors of torture and death. What is equally dismaying to both of them is that Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit missionary who was their mentor, has become an apostate living a secular life with a Japanese wife and family. Refusing to believe that their own tutor has "gone native," they set out to find the truth, only to discover that Christianity has refused to take root in "the swamp" of Japan. All the while Rodrigues tries to remain convinced that Christ is present despite the suffering of Christians. "Christ is here," he says at one point. "I just can't hear him." In Silence, he never does.

Andrew Garfield and Yôsuke Kubozuka

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad was interested in delving into the psychological terrain of colonialism and examining the latent fears of European colonists who were terrified that those they colonized were also reflections of their darkest desires (which is what their 'civilized' behaviour masked). Marlow's journey up the river metaphorically peels away that mask of civility and uncovers what Europeans feared was the savage they sought to contain – both in the countries they controlled and the impulses they buried within themselves. Silence lacks those nuances when looking at the men of the cloth and what their dark desires might be. It is more interested in the ways the purity of religious faith gets tested by violence and torture, as well as the reasons why God remains silent in the face of such horror. The picture also attempts to come to terms with the forces that drive a man of faith to apostasy, but not what makes him faithful to God under these circumstances. The movie, in the end, doesn't really succeed at revealing the troubling nature of faith because the main characters – the men of God – are portrayed only as dogmatists preaching the gospel. Silence simply collapses into dour pedantry. Despite the brutality of the Japanese towards Christians – torturing them with boiling water, drowning them, wrapping them in straw and burning them, cutting them and hanging them upside down and then slowly bleeding them to death unless they renounce Christ – Rodrigues and Garupe's problem is only how to make devotees out of the Japanese they encounter and protect them from the Inquisitor and his soldiers. Rather than pose questions about how one maintains belief when God doesn't protect those who believe in Him, Silence takes mute sanctuary in lionizing the devoutly faithful.

These questions of belief were pretty central to Scorsese's flawed The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which told Jesus's story as if it were part of the Old Testament. Christ (Willem Dafoe) continually questions God's authority in order to understand his role as a prophet; he even came to imagine what his life would look like if he didn't sacrifice himself on the cross. But despite all the controversy it stirred up, Last Temptation concluded with Christ making the ultimate oblation. By contrast, in Kundun (1997), with the help of Melissa Mathison's delicate and perceptive screenplay, Scorsese dramatized the life of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled political and spiritual leader of Tibet, as a fairy tale. Kundun is an enchanted story about a deeply spiritual man who lives outside of time (in a realm dictated by reincarnation and an eternal God) as well as in a time where political realities impose themselves on those beliefs. But in both these movies, Scorsese was pulled into the spiritual struggles and conflicts of his main characters (just as he had been in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, and "Life Stories" from New York Stories). In other films, though, his devout Catholicism has shielded him from the very questions of belief that Silence is supposed to be about. As if motivated by a weight of guilt and sin, Scorsese has sometimes removed himself from the dramatic realism of those movies to seek redemption instead for characters guilty of the same sins that his realism uncorked in his best films. When it came to Jake LaMotta, the brutal boxer in Raging Bull, and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, and the pool shark Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, Scorsese tried to save their souls while neglecting to provide souls for them. (Luckily Paul Newman brought so much devilish panache to the role of Eddie Felson that Scorsese didn't succeed in making him a successful candidate for redemption.)

Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira

The missionaries of Silence aren't so much redeemed by their faith as fulfilled by it. Their behavior -- one martyrs himself for God, while the other ultimately cloaks his beliefs in secular garb in order to survive – robs the film of any moral ambiguity. Scorsese doesn't set out to depict these men of God as missionaries out to end human suffering, but as true believers who choose to identify with human suffering. If Scorsese saw their mission in other terms, the Japanese characters wouldn't have to be drawn so narrowly in the story, as savage villains. One Japanese Christian, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), is conflicted by his lack of faith, but he comes across as a cartoon – Judas and Gollum rolled into one. The Japanese Inquisitor, Inoue (Issey Ogata), is a verbose caricature who wouldn't be out of place in a World War Two drama from Hollywood. As for Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, there's so little dimension to their parts that they look as if they might have just walked in from a Fifties Biblical epic. (Ciarán Hinds, as their Jesuit superior, suffers the same fate but the expression on his face suggests that he knows it.) Liam Neeson gives a relaxed performance, but he barely appears until the final third of the story, at which point Silence has pretty much exhausted itself. 

When a great director gets caught up in themes that obsess them, they often lose perspective on the material. In Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola tried to turn Heart of Darkness into a metaphor for the Vietnam War, but it didn't work because the psychological connections weren't there. It didn't even make dramatic sense. Since Willard (Martin Sheen) was already a black ops assassin, how was he going to find his dark side by going up river to meet Kurtz? Given that Kurtz (and everyone else) seemed to know where Willard was at every turn, making his mission less a secret than a burden, why bother sending him up river in the first place? Once Kilgore (Robert Duvall) napalmed a beach so his boys could go surfing, how was Kurtz going to appear any crazier than that? Coppola lost sight of the particulars because he was caught up in the broad strokes of his Vietnam metaphor – which turned out to be nothing but a manifestation of American guilt. Silence is similar to Apocalypse Now in that Scorsese doesn't provide any dramatic particulars for Rodrigues and Garupe's journey other than to demonstrate their need to protect Christians from getting mangled and killed. Garfield and Driver's characters get to suffer out their spiritual pain, but without delving into the question of why their faith might inspire such violence, or even the question of why more people have died for religion than for any other cause. 

When demonstrating apostasy, the Japanese captors ask that the missionaries renounce their faith by placing one foot upon a fumi-e (a religious carving of Jesus or Mary). You can feel that same foot coming down on the troubling questions that Silence doesn't answer. There's no allowance for the reasons the Japanese officials (who are Buddhists) might feel so threatened. It's likely they fear that poor and hungry peasants might be susceptible to believing that Christianity will assuage their suffering by promising them paradise in Heaven. There's a peculiar fundamentalism at work here: the picture comes down to faith or unbelief. With all the devotion that Scorsese has put into Silence, a long-standing dream project, he's abandoned the one aspect that makes his best films so vital: his dramatic judgement. Silence has made very little noise since its release last Christmas. Maybe that's because it's mute on the very issues that might make it matter.   

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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