Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time

 

Why is La La Land being embraced so readily and Silence shunned? Evidence from box office sales and nominations during this Awards Season clearly show the difference between the two. Just now, the Oscar Nominations are in. La La Land: 14  Silence: 1

Allow me to speculate.

One in glamorous primary colours, the other shrouded in misty shades of gloom. One a fantasy, romance in song and dance, the other realism of suffering, persecution, death. One is layback, relaxing entertainment, the other is 2.5 hours of intense engagement. One charms, the other disturbs. When offered at the end of a tumultuous year, and as we step into a new one when hopes and fears are renewed, the choice is easy. La La Land is an amiable feature (although I won’t get into the overrated debate here), but Silence sure doesn’t deserve the disregard it’s getting.

It’s just that Silence arrives in the most unwelcome time. But then again, there’s no suitable time for a feature like it. Isn’t it revelatory and even prophetic that this film, probably director Martin Scorsese’s most important in his oeuvre, seems to be a total outcast, a lost cause? Exactly, that’s just as it would have ended up.

It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, for a film about spirituality, other-worldly and intangible values, and challenges of faith in the face of persecution to be celebrated by this power and fame-obsessed, material world? For it to receive praise and honor would be the ultimate irony indeed.

In a society which aims at being great, where ratings, numbers, wealth and social media status define success, where loudness rules and silence shunned, it is only expected that a film entitled “Silence” will not be cheered on. It runs against the grains of popularism, for it’s a film about failure.

I have posted a book review of Silence back in December, 2016. In it is a historical note. To summarize, Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was well received then, and by 1600, there were 300,000 Christians in Japan. But the Edo Period beginning in 1603 changed everything. Ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered expulsion of foreign influences and Christianity had to survive underground. Torture was used to drive Christians to disavow their faith. Stepping on the fumie, a brass plague engraved with a Christ figure, is the convenient way to show one’s apostasy, leading to instant release. During this time, the Catholic Church received the news that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira had disavowed his faith and became an apostate. He had since lost contact with the Church.

The film doesn’t need many words to explain these historical events, for its visuals are self-explanatory. It starts off with father Ferreira’s apostasy, apparently under duress as he sees his flock being tortured to death. Liam Neeson’s gaunt and horrified expressions speak all. That’s the power of cinema.

ln-in-silence

Back in Portugal, two young priests, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) appeal to their superior Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to allow them to go to Japan to look for Ferreira and to seek the truth of the situation. Thus begins the story.

I’ve long learned not to judge a movie adaptation according to how loyal it is to the book, for the two are different art forms and a direct transposition may not be possible. But here is one exception. I’m glad that Scorsese’s Silence, co-written with screenwriter Jay Cock (Gangs of New York, 2002), is surprisingly faithful to Shusaku Endo’s historical novel, and that ‘faithfulness’ is both desirable and most admirable here.

By following Endo’s storyline to the dot, extracting pertinent text from the book as dialogues and voiceover, and spending time to cover the all important Epilogue, the director shows his desire to honour the author’s work, a wish that had long hidden in his heart. Indeed, it has been twenty-five years since Scorsese first read Endo’s masterpiece and was so deeply moved that he knew he needed to film it one day.

Another way we see Scorsese’s regard for Endo is his restraint when portraying the tortures of Japanese Christians. What we have, surely, is visual, graphic scenes which, while reading the book are left to the author’s descriptions and our imagination, but on screen are left to the director’s discretion. Kudos to Scorsese, those scenes are done with much restraints. This was a welcome surprise to me. I went into the theatre braced for his treatment like the ending scene of Taxi Driver (1976), or the bloody mayhem in Gangs of New York (2002). I need not have worried. But what I was hit with I had not expected.

Scorsese can definitely unleash more gore in Silence. But he chose not to. The scenes in the film are done with the utmost respect and dignity for the persecuted. Here’s a confession, I’m not one who easily succumbs to emotions, never need a Kleenex while watching a movie in the theatre. Here in Silence, as I watched the three Japanese Christians hanging on the makeshift crosses at the seashore swallowed up by the rising waves, tears slowly streamed down my face. What more, the guy sitting behind me was sniffing away, uncontrollably.

 

The main actors are powerful in taking hold of our emotions. Liam Neeson’s painful expressions both at the beginning and the end are very moving. Adam Driver lost 50 pounds for his role. His skeletal form is almost painful to watch. The Japanese actor Yôsuke Kubozuka is effective as Kichijiro, the ‘Judas character’.

The emotion of the whole film, however, is driven by two actors: Andrew Garfield as young father Rodrigues and the calculated, ruthless inquisitor Inoue played by Issei Ogata. The two form a stark foil: the hot-blooded idealist slaughtered slowly by the cold, harsh ruler. A tidbit for those who had watched Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), Ogata is Mr. Ota in there.

Garfield is effective in leading us to feel for Father Rodrigues’ sad and tragic journey. Martyrdom is the path to glory, and an easy way out. But no, Rodrigues isn’t given that luxury. Rather, he is faced with a most precarious test, tearing his soul and conscience, that is to apostatize or see his flock die by torture. It is unfortunate that the film has not been well received. Garfield deserves a nomination for Silence.

While it may be about the hidden church that runs underground to avoid annihilation, Silence is more about one man’s struggle with faith and doubt, and ultimately, making his choice and living with it for the rest of his life.

Here’s the rub. In this ‘either or’ society we live in, Rodrigues’s predicament is particularly distressing for us. It is often convenient and tempting to oversimplify issues and splitting them into clean-cut opposing sides, either B or W, L or R, D or R. In Silence, we’re confronted with yet another dichotomy: Devout or Apostate. What Scorsese reveals to us with his last scene is that, the line separating the two is blurry and permeable.

silence-and-beauty-free-chapter-mako-fujimura-1

In his compendium book to the movie, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura, who is special adviser to the film, discusses the necessary existence of a ‘hidden’ identity to those practising Christianity in that historical era in Japan. For 250 years during the anti-foreign, ironclad Shogunate rule of the Edo Period (1603-1868), the only way to survive as Christians was to become hidden, Kakure Kirishitans as they were called in Japan. Stepping on the fumie, as the officials say, could well be only a formality, for it likely did not represent the heart. It is unfortunate that the persecuted Kakure Kirishitans had to succumb to this double life. As outsiders looking in, should we be so easy to judge them? Silence challenged us with that question. Unlike the bold declaration of Western Christianity, the Kakure Kirishitans held on to an inner faith that on the outside was wrapped with weakness and failure, total submission to the ruling authority. A painful, paradoxical existence.

The crucial, final scene in the film, which is the Epilogue of Endo’s book, holds the key to the question. I appreciate Scorsese’s closure. That is also how Fujimura explains Endo’s viewpoint. No spoiler here. Cinematically, the production is an artistic and powerful work worthy of Endo’s masterpiece. Scorsese’s quarter-century quest had not been in vain. Being recognized or not in the Awards Ceremonies just may not be as important an issue.

Of course, there’s always the bottom line. After investing so much resources, time and talents in the production, it is only natural to wish for a positive return. Could the voice that speaks to Rodrigues at that most crucial fumie moment speaks also to Scorsese as well regarding his film Silence?

“Trample! Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world…”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

CLICK HERE to read my review of the book Silence by Shusaku Endo

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time”

  1. Thank you! Thank you! I was one of the majority who went to see “La La Land,” but not “Silence.” I also tried to read Silence many years ago. Maybe it’s just not the “right time” for me to engage with the story directly, but on the other hand, I have some Christian friends who are true film buffs and I can see watching it with them. In any case I so appreciate your exploring the themes and the meanings, and the meaning of the weak reception.

    I am glad to hear about Fujimura’s book, too, and would like to read it. The necessity of Christians hiding their faith was also an issue in Eastern Europe during the 20th century, I believe. I would not presume to judge how someone else responds in the midst of trials I can’t imagine, and I hope I won’t have to face.

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    1. Gretchen,

      Yes, I think you’ll find both the book and the film thought-provoking. No easy way to deal with such a scenario which we all hope will never have to face. And do try to find Fujimura’s book too, or explore his website. He’s an international artist and being Japanese American, knows both cultures intimately. It was a wise move for Scorsese to have him as a special advisor to his film. I’d love to hear from you again once you’ve seen the film or read the book. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your ripples. 😉

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  2. Arti,
    What a glowing review for Silence and I am going to go see it, because you inspired me ! Yes, many analogies can be made for where we (US) are coming from, with our recent “misguided” choice for “noise”, and the choice of shunning this movie in favor of a larger-than-life flamboyant musical. Why does the pendulum have to swing so completely in the opposite direction all the time? Why are some things “way cool” one year and “so not cool” the next? IDK. I wish I understood humans better. . .

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    1. Heather,

      The pendulum does swing, raising the uncertainties of our times. As for the Oscars, that’s unpredictable as always. Well, that’s where we get our drama and entertainment I suppose. La La Land is still a pretty good movie, albeit in my view a little overrated. Now that’s another popular term nowadays. But just unfortunate films like Silence does not appeal as they should. Anyway, I hope you’ll stop by again after you’ve seen the film and share with us your thoughts.

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  3. Well, you know me well enough to know that I am probably going to love La La Land (if it lives up to the hype) — singing, dancing, bright colors, good music, good leads. It’s my kind of movie — at least, what I hear of it is. And Silence? Not so much. I love the concept — historical drama, great story of faith and commitment and religion but I don’t do things where people are hurt anymore. At least, not like what I hear this is, no matter how good it is supposed to be. I’m sorry it didn’t get more respect because I suspect what you say is really true.

    But the truth of the matter? I don’t want to see heavy stuff right now. I’ve been weighed down, dragged out, depressed and just on the floor since early November. I don’t want to see screaming people, sad kids, teens trying to cope in bad situations, people with job problems, dogs that make you cry, people who hate other people (even if the story ends up being uplifting). I see that in the news and I’m sick of it. I want Florence Foster Jenkins to come back. And La La Land and Notting Hill and Love Actually. I’m done with serious for awhile. (OK, if it’s still around I’ll try to see Jackie, but I know what happens there.)

    Good grief, just think if that happened today the Camelot myth that the Trumpeters would try to create… I want my Hugh Grant movies, please…and tap dancing.

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    1. Jeanie,

      I can’t put it better. You’ve just expressed succinctly the psyche of our times, well, at least most movie goers nowadays. I know exactly how you feel. I too like to seek out films that give me pleasures. Nobody would want to find more troubles to dwell on after going through real-life reality shows. But just bad timing for Scorsese. He doesn’t deserve the snub. And all those actors, their efforts ought to be recognized. By all means, go see La La Land, I’m sure you’ll love it, and Florence Foster Jenkins, and rewatch Notting Hill, that’s a good one. BTW, Liam Neeson is in Love Actually too. You see, that’s just show how versatile these top-notch actors are. Lion is a good one if you can go past the first section. But the kid is amazing. Even for you, I’d say, go for it. 🙂

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    1. Michelle,

      You know, the single Oscar nom Silence gets is for Cinematography. You’ll want to see the film just for that. Also, do check out the international artist Makoto Fujimura. You may like to explore his website and yes, do try to get his book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. It’s some sort of wabi sabi, exploring the dual, seemingly incompatible duality of suffering and beauty.

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  4. Thanks for this great discussion. I saw both La La Land and Silence, and loved both. Silence may not be a crowd-pleaser and it is difficult to watch, but it is a masterful adaptation of the novel and very relevant to our times.

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    1. Linnet,

      You’re right it’s not a crowd pleaser. It’s a humiliating box office flop, but only indicative to the reality of our time and by no means a statement about the vision or talents of the director’s, or his cast and crew. Thanks for stopping by the Pond and throwing in your two pebbles. Appreciate your comment as always. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think, for me, the only possible choice — if I had to choose between the films — would be “Silence.” I’ve devoted a good bit of energy to holding my tongue over the recent months, particularly when I’ve stumbled into conversations about Christians, and how vile, nasty, stupid, and generally uncaring they are. 🙂

    The temptations in those situations are myriad, both online and in real life, and figuring out how to address them — confrontation? argument? withdrawal? silence? — is energy draining. It’s what makes the film suddenly appealing. I suspect there are lessons there for all of us, and a kind of commonality I never would have expected.

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    1. Linda,

      I like this: “I have devoted a good bit of energy to holding my tongue over the recent months…” It’s ironic, isn’t it, that much strength is required to be silent. That just might be a new insight into this film. Anyway, people react differently to it, all depends on one’s personal background, worldview, faith or non-faith frame of reference. That is totally fine with me. But one review I’d read is simply too hard a test for me to stay silent. And that’s when the reviewer rants about not having a major female role in the film. Umm, no major female role among the Jesuits? Blame Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

      This is perhaps the most ‘loyal’ adaptation from book to movie I’ve seen. From my discussion in the post, I don’t usually look for ‘loyalty’, for I’ve long learned not to compare apples with oranges, so to speak. But here, my hats off to director Scorsese for being true to and consistent with the source material. No major female role? Blame the writer Shusaku Endo. Right, now she can come back and rant about the Japanese society in the 17th C., and then all the centuries up to now.

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