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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter: film review of 'Silence'

My latest movie rental was Silence ...

a 2016 historical period drama film directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese, based upon the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō. Set in Nagasaki, Japan, the film was shot entirely in Taiwan around Taipei. The film stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds.

The plot follows two 17th century Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan to locate their missing mentor and spread Catholic Christianity. The story is set in the time of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians"), following the suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638) of Japanese Roman Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate.

I hesitated to see this movie as I am no fan of missionary work ... Francis Xavier, one of the most famous of Jesuit missionaries, did some awful things (read about the Goa Inquisition). Still, I had really liked The Mission so I thought I'd give it a try.

The movie got mostly very positive reviews, but I found it to be one of the worst movies I've seen. The acting was very good, the cinematography was good too, but the story itself was awful ... I'm not sure if that's because the book's story was unlikable or if the changes Scorsese made to the book's story wrecked it. What did I so dislike about it?

- It presented a view of Japan that was repressive and cruel towards Christians and missionaries, with never a mention for context's sake of Western governments' and the Catholic church's treatment not only of non-Christians but of other Christians too ... the forced conversions and expulsions, the inquisitions, the crusades, and the witch trials.

- The movie was almost like an elegant torture/snuff film ... I haven't seen so many people tortured to death since 24. And the movie presented a view of Christianity that was all about Jesus' suffering and his execution instead of about his life, his teachings, his actions, his resurrection. The rating of the faith of the Christians in the film rose or fell all based only on whether they would repudiate Jesus when confronted with the threat of torture .... remember, the original disciples all ran away when Jesus was arrested, and Peter denied knowing him three times, and yet Jesus forgave them and their faith, such as it was, is what Christianity was built upon.

- And I've got to say, it was boring. Another film (miniseries, actually) that did a much better job on this subject, perhaps because it was adapted from a more accessible book, was Shogun. For those interested, I wrote more about this a few years ago: Jesuits in Japan redux ...

- Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne (based on William Adams) and Damien Thomas as Jesuit Martin Alvito (based on João Rodrigues SJ) from Shōgun

But anyway, I'm not the only person who didn't like the movie. A review in Variety stated ...

Though undeniably gorgeous, it is punishingly long, frequently boring, and woefully unengaging at some of its most critical moments. It is too subdued for Scorsese-philes, too violent for the most devout, and too abstruse for the great many moviegoers who such an expensive undertaking hopes to attract (which no doubt explains why Scorsese was compelled to cast The Amazing Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield and two Star Wars stars).

And here's a the beginning of a review in The Guardian ...

Silence: Scorsese’s new film is not worth making a noise about

We all know how it is with Scorsese. At the core of his work is the solid-gold De Niro material with one foot in Marty’s Italian-American upbringing: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King Of Comedy and Goodfellas/Casino. Then a second rank of DiCaprio collaborations, offering a lower rate of return: The Departed, Shutter Island, Wolf Of Wall Street. Then there are the oddities – New York New York, Cape Fear and Hugo – where he feels miscast or lost as a director. Then there’s this final category – movies on the subject of religious devotion that gestated in Scorsese’s mind over years or decades: The Last Temptation Of Christ, Kundun and now Silence. These tend to be the Scorsese movies I only ever see once, feeling no compulsion to revisit or reassess them.

I fear that Silence expired in the womb during that long gestation period. It is beautiful to look at, but feels inert, humourless and overly devout (to say nothing of over-long; Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation got Shūsako Endō’s 1966 novel on to film using 30 fewer minutes than Scorsese). Perhaps that leap toward the devout is needed to savour it fully – and I found I couldn’t make it. I didn’t care: for me, Christianity is one of the Big Bs of violent colonial intrusion – Bullet, Bottle, Bacillus, Bible – and Silence has a “white saviour” complex it can’t shake. Also not helpful are the other distractions: US, English and Irish actors all playing Portuguese while speaking English in shaky Latin accents; and an American director, more comfortable with modernity, making an avowedly Japanese period movie, from a novel by a member of Japan’s Catholic minority, and with Taiwan standing in for Japan ....

If you're looking for an Easter movie, I'd suggest Jesus instead.


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