Wednesday, June 7, 2017

At The Movies: Martin Scorsese’s Silence

Well, it has taken me much longer than anticipated, but recently I finally caught up with Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, Silence. A quick online search reveals that the film has elicited mixed reviews from a wide range of viewers—both regular filmgoers and film critics—so today I thought I would add my own two cents worth to the discussion. But first, a brief synopsis:

In 17th Century, two Portuguese Jesuit priests Garupe (Adam Driver), and Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), travel to Japan in search of their mentor and teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The Catholic Church has lost touch with Ferreira, and what is worse, rumour has it that while under duress, Ferreira has committed apostasy (that is, renounced his religious beliefs).

This is the third major film from Martin Scorsese that examines aspects of different religions. The first was his 1988 adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the second was the 1997 film Kundun, which is based on the life and writings of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Of course, if you have been following Scorsese’s career from the beginning, you might remember the open scenes of his breakthrough film Mean Streets (1973), which begins with Harvey Keitel’s character, Charlie, in church holding his hand over a burning candle, while ruminating on Catholic guilt and redemption, a theme that crops up throughout the film. But back to Silence.

The two young priests refuse to believe that Father Ferreira’s apostasy was due to the torture and abuse he received at the hands of his Japanese authorities. They are convinced that their mentor would never apostatise no matter how severe the suffering he was forced to undergo. Firmly convicted of this belief, the two men make the perilous journey to Japan to search for Ferreira and to continue spreading the Catholic view of the Gospels to the Japanese peasants they encounter. 

Things progress well enough for a while, but with the Japanese authorities closing in on their hiding place, the two priests separate in the hope they might evade their pursuers at least for a while longer. At this point in the film Adam Driver/Garupe disappears for pretty much the rest of the movie and attention is focused on Andrew Garfield/Rodrigues.

A powerful moment between Andrew Garfield/Rodrigues and a villager played by Shin'ya Tsukamoto.

To begin with, I was not convinced that Andrew Garfield—who carried two-thirds of the film on his shoulders—was up to the task, but as the film progressed, I was drawn further and further into what became a very powerful, and believable performance. Of course, he is soon captured by the authorities and before long his own faith is tested in ways that he (and we the audience), never imagined possible.

To my surprise, apart from the opening scenes filmed in the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Macau, China, the rest of the film shoot took place on various locations on the island of Taiwan. The cinematography is stunning throughout, and as you might expect from a master storyteller like Scorsese, he is in complete control of his actors and the story he wants to tell. 

Since I am not a practising (or lapsed Catholic), and indeed since I hold no religious affiliations whatsoever, I did feel somewhat removed from the emotional heart of this film. I was certainly able to appreciate the film on an intellectual level, but at certain points during the film I could not escape the voice in my head that insisted on reminding me about the cultural imperialism of the Catholic Church, and its often brutal proselytising among other cultures that were, and have been perfectly happy with their own homegrown religious practices. Of course, this ‘going out into the world to convert the heathen’ was not confined to the Catholic Church. The proselytising of today’s Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and representatives of other faiths shows that while the language may be different, the aims are still the same.

The wonderful Issei Ogata in his role as the old samurai.

However there are other lessons to engage the non-believer and agnostic in Silence. Reflecting on the film and the nature of belief, I couldn't help thinking about the current crisis plaguing Europe and other parts of the Western world. I am referring to the rise of Islamic extremism, and the ongoing ‘war on terror’ that Western governments and their extensive security forces, are no closer to winning today than they were following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, or for that matter since the terrorist attacks on New York City, and elsewhere in America on September 11, 2001.

It seems to me that just as the Jesuit priests of the 17th Century were prepared to face the harshest conditions imaginable, as well as the trials and tribulations meted out to them by local authorities intent on protecting their own positions of power, so too are the foot-soldiers of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Moro Islamists in the Philippines, Indonesia’s Jemaah lslamiyah, and other murderous Islamic splinter groups. 

It also seems to me that just as the Jesuit priests in Silence refused to renounce their faith in the Catholic Church and their God, so too are hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists confined to prison systems around the world refusing to renounce their own beliefs and faith in the tenets of Islam, as interpreted by their local religious leaders. Should we be surprised at their dedication to their various causes? Should we applaud the commitment to their faith? Or should we inflict so much suffering and pain on them that they are forced to recant and deny their own Gods?

And yes, dear reader, I am well aware that the vast majority of the world’s Christians are not strapping suicide vests to themselves and blowing up concert goers in Manchester and Paris, or gunning down diners relaxing in restaurants and cafés, or driving cars and trucks at high speed through suburban streets running down pedestrians. However, I am also aware that a study of Christianity reveals a history of murderous inquisitions, bloody Crusades, and death by stoning, beheading, fire and more.

A still from the crucifixion scene.

While it may seem that I have trodden a path well away from the one I started out on, that is, a review of the film, Silence, I am not so sure. After all, the film explores the nature of faith, belief and God, and the consequences of sticking to those beliefs—or not as the case may be—no matter what. It should be said that the film also examines the nature of love, betrayal and forgiveness.  

Despite its length (160 minutes), Silence is a film that can bear repeated viewings, not only for the excellent acting, stunning locations and beautiful cinematography, but also for the opportunity it gives the viewer for reflection and contemplation. There is much to appreciate in Silence, and I am delighted that I had a chance to see the film in a cinema with a big screen, which allowed me to appreciate its scope and grandeur even more.

If you haven’t seen the film, here is the official trailer to help wet your appetite.

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