Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Alternate Title:  The Passion of the Audience
One sentence synopsis:   Two priests travel to Japan to discover the fate of their teacher while trying to avoid the agents of the Japanese inquisition, determined to eradicate Christianity in Japan.

Things Havoc liked: Despite Hollywood being a star-driven system overall, if you're a true cinephile, there are certain directors you simply pay attention to. Spielberg, Tarantino, Aranofsky, the Coens. And high on that list of key directors is Martin Scorsese, a man who has made 24 full length feature films over the course of his career, and been nominated as Best Director for exactly one third of them. Though obviously best known for his crime dramas like Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets, or Taxi Driver, Scorsese does occasionally step outside the confines of his normal routine, whether for whimsical fantasy (Hugo), or for pissing off authoritarian governments (Kundun). So it is with this film, a long-awaited historical mediation on spirituality, religion, sacrifice, and faith, in which Kylo Ren and Spiderman go to Japan to find Liam Neeson.

In the mid-1630, in Macao, then a Portuguese colony on the edge of China, two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), receive word through an intermediary that their former teacher and mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has been captured in Japan while attempting to preach the gospel, tortured and forced to recant his faith in public. Both young men immediately decide to venture to Japan to find and retrieve him, while also spreading their faith as best they may, despite all entreaties to the contrary. Japan in the 1630s, after all, is in the throes of the Tokugawan persecution of Christians, an attempt by the newly-victorious ruling parties of Japan to violently extirpate the Christian faith from their shores by any means necessary. So begins an epic journey into danger and faith, of martyrdom by the helpless and suffering inflicted by the powerful. So begins, in essence, Scorsese's attempt to delve into the contents of his own on-again, off-again Catholicism, to discover truths about faith, ritual, and God.

Heavy stuff? Unquestionably. So let's return to the temporal plane with a discussion of what works, and to my surprise, we have to start with the acting. Andrew Garfield has been a hit-or-miss figure with me over the films I've seen him in, particularly the abominable Amazing Spiderman, but his performance in this film is absolutely spot-perfect. Garfield's ability to project college-aged youth-with-confidence through films like The Social Network has never been in question, and in the role of a young priest who has no idea what he is getting into, but strives as best he can to do right by the parishioners he encounters in Japan, he finds the best role of his career, not that that's saying a whole hell of a lot. All joking aside, Garfield has to anchor the movie, and does it very well, oscillating between naivety and doubt as to what his mission should be in the face of the horrific, unending brutality on display from the Japanese authorities towards Christians native or foreign. His character is not a fool, nor blind to the suffering his presence may cause, and his struggles with the dictates of his faith and desire to bring compassion in the form of Christianity to the devout worshipers that cling to existence in Japan, despite all efforts to (literally) extirpate them. Almost as good is Adam Driver, of Kylo Ren fame, whose Father Garupe, another secret traveler to Japan, an equally-committed but more hardline priest who regards the torments of the local Christians as contributions towards martyrdom, and who holds to a hard line against the demands of the shogunate to trample upon images of Christ and the saints. A lesser role goes to Liam Neeson, not phoning it in for once, as a broken priest forced to adopt Buddhism and to become a hunter of Christians. I've said before that Neeson is a very good actor when a strong director takes him in-hand (and there are few stronger than Scorsese), and he manages considerable nuance and conflict through subtle elements of his performance, saying one thing, meaning another, and probably believing a third, or perhaps not, depending on the interpretation. The Japanese cast, including veterans like Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer), Issey Ogata (The Sun), and Yōsuke Kubozuka (Strangers in the City), all execute flawlessly, particularly Yosuke, who plays the perennially lapsing Christian Kichijiro, who constantly fails tests of his faith and devotion and constantly seeks redemption and repentance for doing so. His character is all-too-human, and would make, in another world, a fine subject for a movie in his own right.

Silence is also, above all else, a gorgeous film, with long, luxurious shots of Japanese country and seacoasts. Waves crash against rocks (and Christians), torches twinkle in the bitter darkness of the night, and peasants lead un-glamorous, un-sentimentalized lives amidst fields of tall grass and azure skies. The music is sparse to the point of non-existence, the film relying instead on whistling wind, shifting branches, running water, and distant cries to form its soundtrack. All in all, the film is a masterful work by a masterful filmmaker, plainly the product of infinite care and devotion on the part of one of the great filmmakers of modern times.

Things Havoc disliked: But goddamn is it long.

Silence clocks in at 161 minutes, which is long as movies go, but not impossibly so. The Hateful Eight still had more than a half hour to go at the point when Silence stopped, but despite that, Silence feels much longer, and that's really the metric that matters. The entire movie, absent a few shots at the beginning and some setup regarding the first village of hidden Christians that the priests come to, is basically comprised of two elements: Martyrdom, and gaslighting. The former is by no means Passion of the Christ level torture-porn, but there is just so damn much of it, at such endless length, as this set of Christians are found out and tortured to death while refusing to recant, and then this set, and then this one over here. I know this is the point of the movie and I know that martyrdom is a core element of the Catholic faith. I also know that seventeen separate scenes of "will the villager step on the image of Christ as commanded by the inquisitor or will he refuse" rapidly gets monotonous for anyone not as obsessively lapsed-catholic as Martin Scorsese, particularly when the answer is always "he will refuse", and the result is always "he will be abused and martyred for doing so".

As to the gaslighting, well if nothing else, this movie finally made it clear to me what is meant by that term, as Garfield is more or less subjected to the technique endlessly for about the last two thirds of the movie, as the authorities alternate the torture of Christians with telling Garfield that he is to blame for them being tortured. This may well be true from a certain point of view, and it certainly is historical to what went on (the Japanese authorities, recognizing that martyrdom was counterproductive, told priests that they would torture Japanese peasants until the priests apostatized. Again, it feels rather churlish to blame the movie for including things that it is ostensibly about, but we get the idea very early on in the process, and the terrible indecision that Garfield undergoes at interminable length only holds the interest for so long. And not to spoil the ending, but given that the movie is more or less entirely about Garfield and his reactions to the terrible tortures being inflicted upon him and others around him, the lack of any clear idea of what he (or anyone else) eventually comes to believe about all of this does not make for compelling filmmaking. The Japanese gaslight a young priest for what appears to be months until he either does or does not recant. Which does he do? Um...

Final thoughts:   There's a degree to which movies like this are enjoyable, as one can respect a good filmmaker making a project he believes in, but that degree ended for me quite a ways from the end of Silence, which ultimately is a punishing movie to sit through, not as literally as Passion of the Christ or its imitators, certainly, but in all the ways that a three hour movie with one hour of content in it can customarily be, irrespective of subject matter. The film is acted very well, shot very well, directed extremely well, and scored... not at all, to be honest, but that's plainly the intent. And yet I left the theater in no hurry to watch it ever again, so certain was I by the end that I had wrung every possible drop of interest out of the concept presented here. Still, subjective as my opinions are, I do try to retain a certain level of objectivity when it comes to a movie that is made as well as this one, but there is a limit to how far I can go in my praise for a movie I did not actually enjoy the act of watching. Catharsis is one thing, after all, but boredom is very hard to defend, no matter what the subject matter is.

Final Score:  6/10


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