Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 07, 2017 11:11 am 
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Flamboyant asceticism

Silence is a 30-years-delayed project. Scorsese has wanted for that long to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s torturous tale. It is a saga of challenged faith. Its focus is on two young and innocent 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) who come to Japan in search of their lost mentor (Liam Neeson). In the period of Endō’s tale, to be a foreigner in Japan was dangerous; to be a priest was to be a marked man. They suffer endless torments at the hands of the Japanese authorities. Led by Grand Inquisitor Inoue Masahige (Issey Ogata) under orders from the shogon, the Japanese mercilessly persecute all local converts to Christianity. When they get the chance, they do all they can to force the missionary priests into acts of public apostasy. That terrible act is made easy, just step on a small plate bearing Jesus' likeness, called a fumi-e. The "silence" of the title is the deafening silence of God in response to the doubting and troubled priests' endless, urgent prayers, making their ordeal of doubt all the greater.

It may be said that great films about spiritual torment, like Dreyer’s Ordet, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest are painful to watch. Some think Silence is ready to join this group. But that has yet to be proven. Silence may be a must-see for students of the spiritual film, but it can feel for the rest of us just like a long slog. It is a serious and immersive study of the Christian crisis of faith. But, even though - because it's Scorsese? - it's beautifully made and feels important, it meanders, and is laced with longeurs.

The best scenes are the early ones in Japan of the two padres, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver). They're immediately plunged into a secret, cave-like existence among Japanese converts. It's like early Christians in the Roman Empire, and then some. The Japanese Christians are touching. Many of their number have already been tortured and put to death. And we are treated to the scene of this happening. Men, women, and children are tied in straw bundles and drowned or burned. Men are crucified and doused with boiling natural spring water till they die; others crucified over the water so they are drowned slowly in high tides; one it's reported took four days to die. But unfortunately the film goes on to spend more time with the punishment and the chase than with the faith. That, anyway, is hard to communicate, though religious debates between Rodrigues and Inoue Masahige are the film's intellectual center. The testing is the subject, anyhow: what happened to Padre Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson) and what happens to Padre Rodrigues, when the Japanese bombard them with threats and enticements beyond bearing.

A good, but ultimately milked-dry secondary character is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the Judas, who's the young padres' "guide" at first, then betrays his family, and keeps getting forgiven and betraying again and coming back for forgiveness. Yosuke Kubozuka is an actor who's been teen-idol eye candy in the past. His performance consists of mime and mugging. Kichijiro keeps coming back like a bad penny. Is Scorsese saying all Christians are apostates, and it's okay?

The three stars, connected with Star Wars (Driver and Neeson) and Spiderman (Garfield) may have been hired with offsetting the film's negative box office potential in mind. But they paid their dues, physically and mentally. All three lost a lot of weight, and Garfield and Driver went through a Catholic silent retreat. Garfield reports studying Catholicism for a year. Such preparation is newsworthy, but may or may not be necessary. Nonetheless this being Garfield's second impressive performance within months as a brave man whose faith is tested, after the recent Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge, he has raised his reputation as an actor of substance far beyond the boyish charm and athleticism of Spiderman.

This isn't the cinematically playful Scorsese. He's obviously far from Wolf of Wall Street, and reconnecting with the Scorsese of The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. If the actors underwent punishment, the audience is punished too. This 160-minute movie is long, painful, and a little shapeless, as well as curiously unengaging in some of its important moments. It risks blending into other films where people are imprisoned, tortured, and mentally abused. It also has that old fashioned flaw of showing foreigners who really shouldn't be able to speaking perfect English. The Porguguese priests speak not a word of Portuguese, and though the Japanese actors do speak their own language, the sometimes break into impossibly fluent English. These are serious distractions.

While the long, drawn out sequences of torture and testing toward the end blend into other scenes from other movies, Rodrigues' final-hour meetings with Ferreirra are strange. He has, as rumored, assimilated and at least ostensibly denied his faith completely. This is hard enough to get your head around to deserve lengthier treatment. In fact this movie feels like the rough draft of a mini-series, which helps explain why it doesn't satisfy fully as a feature film.

Scorsese is obviously a mass of contradictions. Imagine a man who just made the boisterous, vulgar Wolf of Wall Street making this austere, punishing film. Wolf is too long too, but both show an overflow of passion and energy. We're watching men undergoing terrible deprivations, yet what's most memorable about Silence are its florid visual flourishes. I can't get out of my head the repeated, spectacular seascapes of the roaring, churning foam of a turbulent sea crashing against a rocky coast shot by the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. (Was Scorsese inspired by Hokusai's famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa?) And of a piece with these swirls is Andrew Garfield's growing beard and flaming pompadour of wavy hair. The more he is deprived, the more his wavy hair sprays out around his head. At film's end, when he is shown at death, long afterward, in a burial capsule, the beard and hair have grown into great gray aureoles, veritable clouds spreading around the man, an apotheosis. Inside, austerity. Outside, flash.

Silence, 160 mins., debuted 29 Nov. 2016 at Vatican City; 13 Dec. at MoMA, NYC. Limited US release 23 Dec., wide 13 Jan. 2017. Screened for this review on opening day at Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas, San Francisco, 6 Jan. 2017.


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