“Silence”

Silence

IN AN ARTICLE published in the now-defunct Continuum, the Trappist monk and Catholic theologian Thomas Merton describes St. Francis Xavier’s early missions to Japan in the 16th century. Though he acknowledges that “a genuine dialogue between the Jesuits and the Zen masters was no simple matter,” the encounter, he writes, was “relatively easy on the cultural level.” In fact, Merton describes a kind of burgeoning Japanophilia in St. Francis, who wrote that “in their culture, their social usage and their mores, they surpass the Spaniards so greatly that one must be ashamed to say so.”

But whatever goodwill existed between the Jesuits and their hosts did not last long, historically speaking. A century later, during the Edo era (or what is sometimes called Japan’s Golden Age) the early converts to the Catholic Christianity of St. Francis Xavier and the missionaries who followed him were violently and cruelly suppressed, to use what seems an inadequate word, following the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate. It’s this persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) that the Japanese Catholic and “Third Generation” writer Shūsaku Endō depicted in his 1966 Tanizaki Prize-winning novel Silence.

The rendering of the novel Silence into film was a Scorsese project that went back decades. According to Scorsese, a lifelong and almost-lapsed Catholic, he first read Endō’s magnum opus when the master director Akira Kurosawa invited him to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in his 1990 magical realism film Dreams. Thus began what Scorsese himself described as a “passion project” and later as an “obsession” when asked why, after twenty-six years, he still intended to make the film. Scorsese and long-time collaborator Jay Cocks had first written a script for Silence in 1991 but were frustrated by their inability to capture the book’s spiritual essence. After years in what is often described––perhaps fittingly, in this case––as “development hell”, Scorsese announced that production would go begin in 2014, in the aftermath of the post-production of The Wolf of Wall Street. (You feel that perhaps the excesses of that film’s characters had, so to say, caught up with the director, and inspired him to do something entirely different.)


The rendering of the novel Silence into film was a Scorsese project that went back decades. According to Scorsese, a lifelong and almost-lapsed Catholic, he first read Endō’s magnum opus when the master director Akira Kurosawa invited him to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in his 1990 magical realism film Dreams.


Silence begins in a Japanese landscape, where steaming hot springs emit bursts of foam and fog and half-nude Japanese converts to Christianity lie battered and bloodied on the ground or hang from wooden posts. The pale and bloodless faces of other converts, recently beheaded, gape from the tops of spikes. Among these watching is the large but horrified and terrified figure of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whose face suggests distress not only at the barbarity itself but at his inability to help those he himself brought over to his faith. Later, at St. Paul’s College in Portuguese Macau, an Italian Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano (in a brief cameo by Ciarán Hinds) tells his two Portuguese pupils, the wide-eyed Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the slight but determined-looking Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) that Ferreira has committed apostasy; he has, in other words, renounced his Christian faith. Rodrigues and Garupe, who were taught in part by Ferreira, are unable to accept that this took place and after calmly but firmly articulation their protestations to Valignano, the older man yields, and gives them his permission to be smuggled into Japan by a drunk and an outcast called Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) so they can try and find him.

The creation of Silence, which is Scorsese’s third religious film and follows his 1988 epic drama The Last Temptation of Christ and the biopic Kundun, which was released in 1977, reflects the director’s lifelong preoccupation with matters of the spirit. It perhaps bears remembering that he himself was dismissed from the seminary as young man. He had once intended to enter the priesthood, citing the influence of his mentor, Father Principe, who “opened [his] eyes to a lot intellectually” through the novels of Dwight McDonald and Graham Greene. (Greene, incidentally, once hailed Endō as “one of the finest living novelists”.) In Silence, Scorsese is able to capture and express and represent the spiritual substance of the novel that, in his words, eluded him for so many years in the early drafts of the script. But it is a film, if nothing else, about anguish in all its forms. In Scorsese’s take on Endō’s masterpiece, he deftly depicts the dilemmas of faith and the uncertainty that necessarily lies underneath the teachings of all religions, and under a beautiful pale-blue sky masterfully made vivid by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.


In Scorsese’s take on Endō’s masterpiece, he deftly depicts the dilemmas of faith and the uncertainty that necessarily lies underneath the teachings of all religions, and under a beautiful pale-blue sky masterfully made vivid by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.


At the same time, Scorsese also depicts in the vulnerable form of Sebastião Rodrigues a more personal kind of crisis that is easily divorced from its religious content and relatable to all. Rodrigues undergoes an exhausting interior battle to maintain his beliefs as the pressures of the surrounding world endeavour first to persuade him not to do so and then to force it out of him. But Scorsese is only able to accomplish this because of Andrew Garfield’s own masterful portrayal of Rodrigues, which is amplified and intensified by the superb supporting Japanese cast. Credit is due in particular to Tadanobu Asano, who plays the deliciously silver-tongued and smiling and mocking interpreter to the hated “Inquisitor” (Issey Ogata)––the man chiefly responsible for the persecution of the Christians. Meanwhile the infrequent but effective musical injunctions of husband and wife Kim Allen and Kathryn Kluge suggest a disinterested and chaotic natural world and reflect the oppressive and repetitive sense Rodrigues has that his God has fallen “silent”, and is therefore watching the suffering of his children with, to steal a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, folded arms.

The film is memorable from the first for its striking tableaux and its graphic scenes of creative and sadistic torture, cheerfully administered to the assorted Christians who refuse to renounce their faith. Both of these things are filmed with great care and skill on 35mm film by cinematographer Prieto, who emphasises the striking brightness and intensity of the colour around his subjects and the natural landscape. There’s a cold and bleak and hostile quality to the scenes that take place during the day; warmth seems to come only at night, when Rodrigues and Garupe and the suffering Japanese Christians have some peace, if only until dawn.

With its quiet strength and simplicity and patience, its considerable running time and its grand themes, Silence feels like the final work of a master director and if Martin Scorsese were to hang up his director’s beret and put the camera away, so to speak, that is what it would be. In a body of work that is so rich and diverse it’s hard to place Silence, although you feel, instinctively if nothing else, that its rightful place is near the top, among Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and GoodfellasSilence is nothing less than a masterpiece of filmmaking and one that doesn’t look to capture the spirit of the age but rather to tell a story that has profoundly affected its creator. Perhaps that is why Silence carries so much power.

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‘Hacksaw Ridge’

'Hacksaw Ridge'

HACKSAW RIDGE BEGINS with a shot of dead soldiers lying on the battlefield and a short, slow-motion tableau of the fighting during the Battle of Okinawa, while Desmond Doss, speaking in a rural Virginia accent, talks about God. And you think to yourself that this couldn’t possibly be directed by Mel Gibson. But it’s the perfect story for the controversial director, who hasn’t directed anything since Apocalypto was released a decade ago, because it combines the sort of Christian humanism that permeates all his recent work with his taste for unfiltered violence and gore, and the result is a something that, though harrowing, is a moving tribute to simple humanity.

Sixteen years before the bloodiest battle of the Second World War, the young Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) hits his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) with a brick while they fight on the front lawn of their Virginia home. His parents rush over to tend to their wounded son, and Desmond, horrified at what he’s done, runs inside the house and stands in front of a poster listing the Ten Commandments. His gaze falls on the words ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. Killing is ‘the worst sin of all’, his mother says, which makes the war that’s about to kick off (not to mention the one that just passed) pretty sinful business. Desmond Doss, at any rate, takes his mother’s words to heart.


Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun.


Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun. He is to date the only member of the American armed forces to have received the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.

But for a long stretch, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel like a war film. The preamble to the heroism that earned Doss his medal goes on for over an hour: Doss, now 26, has grown up to be a very different man to his drunk, abusive father (Hugo Weaving) who can’t overcome his guilt at having out-survived his friends during the First World War, and meets and falls in love with a nurse called Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).

Gibson isn’t so patronising as to let us forget that there is a war taking place; nevertheless Doss’s burgeoning relationship is developing happily and he, though fiercely patriotic, is under less pressure than others to enlist.When Doss finally shows up for basic training at Fort Jackson and announces that he won’t carry a weapon the tone shifts and the film really gets going, and in the second half, on Okinawa, it roars into life. The first battle sequence makes the iconic D-day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan look like a pleasant summer trip to the beach. Before Desmond’s unit begin fighting the camera lingers on the bloody bodies and the entrails on the floor, and the rats eating the flesh of the dead. Violence is central to Gibson’s work, and in Hacksaw Ridge he seems especially incapable of looking away from anything red and mushy. It’s grisly stuff, and if not for a very good performance from baby-faced Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge might be completely lacking in subtlety. But Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic. There’s one excellent tracking shot in which the camera moves rapidly backwards as the American and Japanese come violently together in front of it.


 Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic.


There’s humour, too, most of it courtesy of a top-of-his-game deadpan Vince Vaughn, who plays the sergeant major of Doss’s unit. In a hilarious five-minute sequence, he walks up and down the new recruits, subjecting them all to ritual humiliation. (‘How long have you been dead?’ he asks the gaunt and hollow-eyed Private Andy ‘Ghoul’ Walker). The recruits, however, never really become anything more than caricatures, which removes some of the emotion we might have felt during the later battle scenes. But Gibson does through these characters give us a sense of the cockiness and masculine optimism of the barracks – soon to be replaced by the sort of battlefield terror that causes some people to freeze completely.

A doe-eyed Garfield turns in a strong performance as a man who seems simultaneously naive and unassuming, quietly tenacious in his beliefs and yet capable of scrambling over corpses and dodging explosives to carry men twice his size to safety. He’s awkward but in a charming sort of way, and there’s a consistency to his performance even when he’s covered in blood and plunging syringes into the wounded that is a hard thing to do. There is some clumsy and slightly gratuitous religious symbolism – it is a Gibson film after all – and Doss does come across as something like a guardian angel, in the early scenes appearing almost comically childlike, and in the later ones as a figure that inspires awe and wonder. But then, Doss was a remarkable man, and though it doesn’t excuse the lingering shot of him suspended in the air between heaven and earth, it’s probably not a stretch to say that he might have felt like a guardian angel to the wounded men he dragged from the battlefield.

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