That first crack of Light,
the epitome of Grace.
That first crack of Light,
the epitome of Grace.
Time for Ripple’s Christmas read, an annual post I name Reading the Season.
In the Pulitzer winning book Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson introduced us to the aging Rev. John Ames in the fictional Iowa town Gilead set in the 1950’s. The book is a letter Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, leaving him with a legacy of family memories, love and forgiveness.
In Home (2008), we enter the house of Ames’ lifelong friend, Rev. Robert Boughton, and meet her daughter Glory. For an ephemeral moment, his son Jack––Ames’ godson––the black sheep of the family appears. Jack returns home after twenty years of self-exile, looking for solace but sadly leaves again without reconciliation.
Lila (2014) is the story about Ames and his young wife Lila, who is homeless and aimless when the old Rev. first finds her on a country road. A beautiful story of how love bridges the great chasm between two utterly incompatible beings and leads to a magical union.
Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Jack (2020) is the fourth and last of the Gilead novels. It brings us back to the prodigal son in Boughton’s family, Jack, but this time, describing a sweet romance, albeit pointing to a challenging future. In terms of the time setting, Jack is a prequel to Gilead and Home. So we know how life unfolds for him. But for a moment, we dwell in some pleasant thoughts. The novel is like a reversal of Lila; here, Jack is the stray redeemed by Grace.
Nothing short of divine providence, Jack Boughton first meets Della Miles on the street, helping her in the rain to pick up papers blown by the wind. Della is a schoolteacher of literature, lover of poetry, witty, intelligent, and fearlessly independent. But, as fate would have it, she is a Black woman in segregated St. Louis during the 1950’s. Herein lies a precarious yet beautiful love story.
Jack and Della meet again one night in a cemetery serendipitously. Jack is destitute, just released after spending two years in prison, albeit for a theft he did not commit outside a pawn shop. Surely, justice isn’t on his side. Jack often gets roughed up or taunted, sometimes for no good reasons, but deep inside, he knows he’s not an innocent man. He’s destructive to others and himself, sometimes steals, and tries hard to remain sober. As mentioned in Home, years ago while still living at home in Gilead, Jack gets a girl pregnant, then just leaves town and disappears. The death of the baby later only adds to more burden and regrets.
Yet in Jack, Robinson’s depiction of the wayward protagonist is not without humour. Take this as an example:
Jack went out walking, trying to get tired enough to sleep, staying sober, so that if he did jump into the river, he could feel his demise has the dignity of considered choice.
Della has no reason to fall in love with Jack, the punishment for miscegenation is jail and being ostracized from her own family and both racial communities. The Miles are a reputable African American family of strong traditions and deep religious roots, the father being a Bishop in the Methodist denomination. No doubt Della is young and not tuned to the laws of a racist society that rewards the conformist and punishes the deviant. Yet, it is her internal light that leads her to defy unjust norms, look through Jack’s outward appearance to cherish his soul.
Della is Grace personified. The concept of ‘unmerited kindness’ is ubiquitous in the book, and Jack knows and is grateful to be the recipient of such. Receiving kindness might just be an understatement. He is redeemed and given a new life upon meeting Della.
Saying grace over pancakes in Della’s home after the cemetery meet, Jack recites spontaneously a verse from the poem “The Paradox” by African American poet Paul Dunbar (1872-1906) :
Down to the grave will I take thee,
Out from the noise of the strife;
Then shalt thou see me and know me––
Death, then, no longer, but life.
Indeed, the paradox of finding life among the dead is the pivotal moment in the book. They talk through the night as soulmates, treasuring the freeing experience inside the locked gate of a cemetery; for Jack, Della is like an epiphany, life in death.
Flannery O’Connor’s notion of the ‘intrusion of grace’ comes to mind as I read the book, light shining into darkness, even just a spark. Also emerged in my mental association is Dostoevsky’s Sonya, the Christlike figure that is a saving grace to Raskolnikov. Not that Jack is an axe murderer, but he knows too well that he needs to be rescued from himself.
Insight and wisdom come packaged in lightness of heart and humor, often embedded in the bantering between Della and Jack. And yet, they are lovers in limbo; while the subjective force of love prevails, there are uphill battles to be fought in the social and systemic front, and an arduous journey awaits. As the story timeframe takes place before Robinson’s Gilead and Home, we know how their lives turn out, which makes reading Jack such a bittersweet experience.
And here’s an imaginary scenario… if the love which surpasses all human barriers could be frozen in time, and let Grace have the last say, that would be heaven.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
2020 has been a most extraordinary year when we find and admit how fragile human beings are. We all need to be rescued not just from a physical virus but a spiritual one and be saved from ourselves. The Christmas Season is an appropriate time to ponder once again on that first crack of light, the epitome of the Intrusion of Grace.
Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:
Related Posts on The Intrusion of Grace:
Light rising out of total darkness makes the most stark contrast.
I took this photo at sunrise two days ago. It wasn’t that dark in the environs but my camera pointing at the light source darkens everything else.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.
–– excerpt from The Valley of Vision
On that first Easter Sunday, the ultimate paradox came to pass, for without a willing death, there would not have been a resurrection.
He is risen!
The One who had gone through utter isolation and known our griefs laments with us at this time.
A man of sorrows who had experienced the ultimate separation: In a crisis, his followers deserted him, even his closest denied him; above all, the physical torments on the cross couldn’t match the pain of searing separation from his Father, forsaken.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
–– Isaiah 53: 2-5
This song has been on my mind all week. An apt meditation on this Good Friday as we’re all going through separation like never before. I chose a minimal video with just the words and the music. Take a 3 minute respite in your isolation this Good Friday.
‘Reading the Season’ is my Christmas post every year. It’s always a pleasure to spend some quiet time amidst the hustle and bustle of the festivities to meditate on the essence and meaning of the Season. Yes, something like the perennial “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
In recent weeks, one of my previous ‘Reading the Season’ posts has seen particularly high traffic, and that’s where I selected a few of Madeleine L’Engle’s poems. Indeed, the brilliant L’Engle had given us more than just A Wrinkle in Time. The versatile writer had 63 publications to her credits.
My favourite of her works is The Crosswicks Journal series. In there is the alchemy of wisdom, experience, and faith. Rereading Book 3 The Irrational Season this time, I came upon this verse which I didn’t notice much before. But this year’s different, for there’s a newborn in the family.
Here’s L’Engle’s short intro before the poem:
“When I wrote the following lines I thought of them as being in Mary’s voice, but they might just as well be in mine––or any parent’s.” (p. 115, The Irrational Season)
Now we may love the child.
Now he is ours,
this tiny thing,
utterly vulnerable and dependent
on the circle of our love.
Now we may hold him,
feeling with gentle hands
the perfection of his tender skin
from the soft crown of his head
to the sweet soles of his merrily kicking feet.
His fingers softly curl
around one finger of the grownup hand.
Now we may hold.
Now may I feel his hungry sucking at my breast
as I give him my own life.
Now may my husband toss him in the air
and catch him in his sure and steady hands
laughing with laughter as quick and pure
as the baby’s own.
Now may I rock him softly to his sleep,
rock and sing,
sing and hold.
This moment of time is here,
has happened, is:
give me the courage for the time
when I must open my arms
and let you go.
And oh what letting go it was for Mary that day at the foot of a cross, that ultimate letting go, and with it, the awakening which must have brought her back to that first night when she gave birth in the manger.
Above Photo Credit: Diana Cheng. An evening view from Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, September, 2018.
Past Reading the Season Posts:
The Whole Story
Behind that stone before
it was rolled away
a corpse lay.
There lay all I deplore:
fear, truculence – much more
that to any other I need not say.
But behind that stone I must be sure
of deadness, to allay
self-doubt i.e. so nearly to ignore
the love and sacrifice for our
release; to nearly stray
back into the old
pursuit of virtue.
Once it is clear
it was a corpse that day,
then, then, we know the glory
of the clean place, the floor
of rock, those linens, know the hour
of His inexplicable “Peace;” the pour
— after He went away —
of wonder, readiness, simplicity,
“Then went the jury out, whose names were Mr. Blindman, Mr. Nogood, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. Highmind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, Mr. Implacable, who everyone gave in his private verdict against him among themselves, and afterwards unanimously concluded to bring him in guilty before the judge. And first among themselves, Mr. Blindman, the foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is a heretic. Then said Mr. Nogood. way with such a fellow from the earth! Ay, said Mr. Malice, for I hate the very look of him. Then said Mr. Love-lust, I could never endure him. Nor I, said Mr. Live-loose; for he would be always condemning my way. Hang him, hang him, said Mr. Heady. A sorry scrub, said Mr. High-mind. My heart riseth against him, said Mr. Enmity. He is a rogue, said Mr. Liar. Hanging is too good for him, said Mr. Cruelty. Let us despatch him out of the way, said Mr. Hate-light. Then said Mr. Implacable, Might I have all the world given me, I could not be reconciled to him; let us forthwith bring him in guilty of death. And so they did; therefore he was presently condemned to be had from the place where he was, to the place from whence he came, and there to be put to the most cruel death that could be invented.”
–– John Bunyan
For the tenth year, I’m sharing a Christmas read here at the Pond. For the first time, it’s a book written for young readers but is ever so relevant for us grown-ups. Herein lies the ingenuity of writer Madeleine L’Engle. Time to dig out that copy that you might have read when you were a youngster. If you haven’t read it, now’s a good time.
Newbery Medal winner A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in the Time Quintet series of fantasy YA fiction about the Murray family, scientist parents and four children Meg, twins Dennys and Sandy, five year-old genius Charles Wallace, and that special friend of Meg’s, Calvin O’Keefe. The deceptively simple odyssey in time and space is packed with wonder and wisdom.
The book not only exudes insights but shows L’Engle’s remarkable foresights. Take this for an example, dematerializing and materializing for easy transport. Published in 1962, the book came out four years before Scotty beamed Kirk up using the same method in the first season of Star Trek.
Or this fancy idea, ‘tesseracting’, that is, travelling through space and time via a wrinkle in time. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but through a wrinkle when two points are folded. That’s fifty years before Christopher Nolan sends Matthew McConaughey interstellar travelling.
All concepts held in a simple plot. Meg, Charles Wallace, together with friend Calvin, go on an interstellar quest to look for Meg and Charles’ physicist father who had gone missing for almost a year while doing some classified scientific work for the government. This little, unequipped search party is initiated and aided by three celestial beings: Mrs. Whatsit, who’s much wiser than she appears, Mrs. Which, who doesn’t bother materializing but remains as a shimmering beam, and Mrs. Who, who speaks in quotes.
The more a man knows, the less he talks.
Their odyssey brings them finally to the planet Camazotz, where they find Mr. Murray confined by the evil Dark Thing, or IT (Surprise! 24 years before Stephen King’s book and now movie) The smart alecky Charles Wallace is easy prey and quickly influenced by IT. (And for Luddites, what better parallel to address our technology now, the evil IT) Ultimately, it’s Meg, our reluctant and timid heroine, who has to be the one to go fight IT to rescue her little brother.
The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.
Meg knows Charles Wallace is not himself but trapped and deceived, and must be snatched from the evil force IT. She has just one weapon as her ammunition, given to her by Mrs. Whatsit, that one thing IT doesn’t have: LOVE. With her single act of bravery, she brings the family together again.
When I was a child, I read like a child, I thought like a child. When I became an adult, I can read like a child and like an adult too. That’s the joy of reading A Wrinkle in Time. One can find pleasure in the adventure and feel the vulnerability of the children, as well delve deeper into its symbolism and parallels, and ponder its layers of meaning.
L’Engle writes to the child and the adult in us. She can convey scientific and spiritual concepts at the same time and in a way that both young and old (and those in between) can enjoy. There’s no conflict between the cerebral and the spiritual; they co-exist comfortably in L’Engle’s work. Not only that, they fuse together and from that alchemy rises a whole new, inexplicable entity: Faith.
That first Christmas day when a baby was born in a lowly manger, the war against IT had started to win. Although the last, painful battle on the hill of Calvary had not been waged, the outcome was cast, just because LOVE came.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
‘Tis the Season to read or reread A Wrinkle In Time before the movie adaptation comes out in 2018. Helmed by Selma (2014) director Ava DuVernay, screenplay by Frozen (2013) scriptwriter Jennifer Lee, with some stellar beings including Rees Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine et al.
Past Reading the Season Selections:
It’s a bit sad to see Martin Scorsese having had to defend the cinema. He wrote the piece in the May 31 issue of The Times Literary Supplement in response to the review of his film Silence by the novelist and literary critic Adam Mars-Jones. It is telling that the director didn’t write a defence of his film, but cinema itself.
Here’s the contentious viewpoints of Mars-Jones’s review, entitled “Subtle absolutisms”:
The transposition of a novel like Endo’s Silence into film, however “faithful”, can only amount to a distortion, an exaggeration overall however many elements of the book are represented.
In a book, too, reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down.
Really? Is a movie, and in this case, Scorsese’s adaptation of Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, a piece of “subtle absolutisms” as Mars-Jones’s title suggests? Do viewers in the theatre have no say but to receive from whatever mood or themes the director hands down to them, devoid of ‘collaboration’? Has the director presented to us – subversively as the title implies – his interpretations and we remain as the silent, passive, unthinking targets?
We’ve heard it before, haven’t we, that a movie leaves no room for the imagination. We can see it all, so explicitly displayed, in actions, colour, and mood, while readers reading a book interact with the book author to create a mental picture as they read, exercising their imagination.
Any regular visitor to the Pond knows Arti disagrees with such criticisms. Even a two-dimensional painting can evoke in viewers a myriad of responses, let alone moving pictures. And how we interpret and interact with such sequential, moving images can be as diverse and subjective as our personalities and life experiences.
If as Mars-Jones says “those images [have] their predetermined progress in a darkened space imposes mood insistently” and if Scorsese embeds his ‘subtle absolutisms’ so ingeniously, the film should bring out very similar responses, predominantly one, as Mars-Jones has concluded: “desolation.”
But as one who dwells in a liminal, in-between space of two cultures, I’ve come across very different reactions to the film Silence. Such could well be said are the results of internal collaborations viewers have had while experiencing Scorsese’s visual storytelling. Indeed, the film has aroused different responses across cultures.
Among Western critics, it’s usually the aesthetics, acting, cinematography, and mood that are the key features noted, as with Mars-Jones’s review. Many point out they’d like to see the roles reversed with the two actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. Many have noted that the film is being ‘faithful’ to the book, however, falling short of discussing the significance of such ‘faithfulness’.
This is an important point when reviewing the film. I usually do not seek how faithful a film is to its original literary work, for the two are totally different art forms, each expresses in its own terms and the appreciation of such should not be measured using the same criteria. When it comes to Scorsese being ‘faithful’ to Endo’s descriptions and narratives, unlike Mars-Jones’s critique of ‘exaggeration’, I find the director is unusually restrained here. He follows closely with Endo’s narratives, his treatment of the persecutions of Japanese Christians poignant and heart-stirring, inferring meaning rather than exposing gratuitous images. All such restraints point to Scorsese’s admiration and respect for the author and his work. At times, I feel Endo’s writing even more graphic.
On the other hand, among Asian viewers, especially among Chinese Christians (overseas and in Hong Kong), the film stirs up deep, theological resonance. Many have shared their heartfelt responses in the print and social media, heated debates ensue among believers, and even from the Sunday pulpit. The film’s characterization emerge as the prime subject for debates: Is Father Rodrigues a true Christian? Can apostasy be pardoned in the face of coercion? What does the last scene tell us about Rodrigues? Can one lead a two-faced, dichotomized life of faith like the hidden Japanese Christians? Or with some, the film has prodded the reflexive to see oneself in the Judas character Kichijiro. A call for empathy for those under authoritarian pressures to give up their faith appear to be an unexpected result, albeit the other side would push for perseverance no matter what.
Rather than the overhanging cloud of near desolation as Mars-Jones points out, the film had stirred up ripples of vibrant discussions around the issues of salvation, suffering, apostasy, betrayal, denial, and redemption. Many of the views I’ve read reflect a pleasurable gratitude as having indulged in a thought-provoking film well made, their faith energized as they ponder on soul-stirring applications to their life.
Perhaps there’s a Roland Barthes parallel here. The death of the author comes after a piece of work is written, for it has reached its destination. Now it’s the reader’s turn to interact and give it meaning. Maybe it is so with film as well. As the director completes his production, it is given a new state of being when it is screened. As viewers interact with it, interpreting and extracting personal meaning, appreciating those elements that strike a chord with their own life experiences, they’re giving life to it in the cinema of their minds.
RELATED POSTS ON RIPPLE EFFECTS:
I’ve tried different words for the title: Two films for the uninterested, indifferent…
So you think Easter is too maudlin an occasion for you. You’re not fond of bunnies, nor church services, and this talk about death and new life has become too clichéd. That’s ok. How about watching a couple of films? No, not Mel’s Passion, you know how the story goes. Something different.
First is a rather tame one. Previously on Ripple, I’d written about the book by Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of A Country Priest (1936), here’s the film adaptation (1951). Watch it for its artistic values and for the appreciation of a French film legend, Robert Bresson.
Robert Bresson is one of the most influential figures in French cinema. The acclaimed New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard once noted: “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”
I know, Austrians would say Mozart was Austrian, but this just shows his influence has crossed borders. Same with Bresson, who is acclaimed as one of the forefathers of the French New Wave, even though his style is not experimental. Swedish iconic director Ingmar Bergman had specifically cited Diary of a Country Priest as influence for his Winter Light.
Do note this: Bresson was a professed agnostic. His adapting a work by the Catholic writer Bernanos shows the moving power and the universal appeal of the book. The parish of Ambricourt in the story is a microcosm of the human world. The seemingly placid village hides a spiritually barren landscape and a cocoon of malice. The young priest, an unwelcome alien, is barred from entry into the inner world of its residents.
Watch for its cinematography. Watch for its symbolism. I won’t go into details again. CLICK HERE to read my full review after you’ve finished this post.
A 1951, black and white film may not pique your interest. Here’s a modern version, and a word of warning: Definitely not for the faint of heart.
Calvary, the acclaimed 2014 Irish film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, 2011). It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival that year among other accolades, and Brendan Gleeson garnered several Best Actor awards in the festival circuit.
Unlike the young priest in Diary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) chooses to enter the priesthood in his middle age. He was married before, now a widower, has an adult daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). He has his past, but has made a clean start, to serve with integrity in an Irish rural town. Like the young priest in the French town of Ambricourt, Father James’ sincerity and total commitment is met with ridicule and hostility, albeit on the surface, the town folks seem to be relatively friendly to him.
How has the world changed since Bernanos’s time? Plenty, not just for the way people conduct their lives, but the Catholic Church has left a tarnished image of sexual abuse.
The opening scene sets an ominous overtone of what’s to come. It is Sunday, Father James sits in the confessional. On the other side a man tells his story explicitly of being raped by a priest when he was seven years old. That horrifying experience lasted for five years almost every other day, rendering him irreparably damaged. He utters a death threat to Father James: one week later he will meet him on the beach and he will kill him.
Why kill Father James? He’s an innocent priest, a good one as a matter of fact. The man says: “There’s no point killing a bad priest. But killing a good one? That’d be a shock. They wouldn’t know what to make of that. I’m going to kill you cos you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Retribution for the crimes of the Catholic Church? Resolving personal bitterness? Administering justice?
A startling opening that turns into suspense as the film progresses. Father James recognizes the voice. He knows who he is, but we as audience don’t. The director leads us to look into the lives of several characters, allowing us to ponder who it is that wants to kill the priest. Sounds familiar? “Lord, who is it?” But Father James knows, and he still treats the man with a pastoral heart.
“I’m going to kill you cos you’re innocent.” Every day of the week, Father James lives with that threat. Each passing day sends him closer to the hill called Calvary. But Father James goes on with his work, caring, being a friend, ministering, including to his own daughter who has recently attempted suicide. He is heartbroken; she feels she can go on now knowing he cares.
Not saying that he’s a saint. How can you live with such a threat from a man who seems to mean business. Father James is all too human… and that’s the side that appeals. To say it’s been an eventful week is an outright understatement. Things just get too personal, and Father James copes with all the wits he can muster. He needs not turn water into wine, there’s plenty around. He waits. We wait.
Then Sunday comes. He prepares himself and heads to the beach.
The very last scene is one of the most heart-wrenching endings I’ve seen, and it’s not at the beach, not with Father James.
It’s about the ripple effects of Calvary: one man bearing the sins of all.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
for both films
Related Posts on Ripple:
I return to The Diary of A Country Priest by French author Georges Bernanos, (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936) perennially at Easter time. Like Endo’s Silence, it reveals candidly a priest’s suffering and struggles in the midst of a harsh and unwelcome world. Unlike Silence though, light shines through the cracks more warmly. Power through weakness, life conquering death, the essence of Easter.
A young priest comes to his first parish, the rural town of Ambricourt, filled with humble hopes. All he wants is to serve the people, to give of himself, to bring God’s love. But as soon as he sets foot in the village, he is engulfed by hatred and rejection. There are dark secrets too sinister to be exposed. The young priest is an unwelcome alien. In a town afflicted by hypocrisy, pride, anger and bitterness, he is despised, taunted and ridiculed. His own inexperience is no match even for the children in his catechism class, especially the precocious Seraphitas, a girl ‘with a hardness far beyond her years.’
Ambricourt is a world afflicted by the ‘leprosy of boredom’, a microcosm of the human condition. Bernanos uses diseases to illustrate his point well. The young priest himself is being slowly consumed by terminal illness. The pain in his stomach ultimately defeats his body, cancer. His diet consists mainly of bread dipped in wine which he makes for himself, and some potato soup. Poverty in materials parallels the frailty of his body to take in solid food. None of these though can compare to the sufferings in his spirit. Many a times we see him in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading for strength in anguish. But he faithfully presses on, using his diary to confide his deepest thoughts, a means to commune with his God.
On the outskirt of Ambricourt is the Château of the powerful M. le Comte. The Count needs no priest to know about his adulterous affairs, this time, with the governess Mlle Louise. His wife Mme la Comtesse is totally absorbed by her long-held bitterness and grief from the loss of her young son. And his daughter Mlle Chantal is a deeply disturbed girl eaten up by anger and jealousy. Soon, she will be sent away to England, a most convenient plan devised by her father.
It is with this deep mess of a family that the young priest finds himself entangled. The most intense scene of the whole book, the climatic moment, comes when the priest goes to the Château to meet with Mme la Comtesse. She lost her beloved son when he was only eighteen months old, a child hated by his jealous older sister Chantal.
On his last day they went out for a walk together. When they came back my boy was dead.
Mme la Comtesse is fully engulfed by hatred for her daughter, grief for her lost son, and bitterness towards God.
Hearing her speak, a tear flows down the face of the young priest. “Hell is not to love any more, madame.” The young priest responds. And with miraculous strength, he delivers the following words.
… But you know that our God came to be among us. Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter? It’s already been done to Him.
Towards the end of some soul piercing exchanges, Mme la Comtesse kneels down, releases her pain, and receives blessings from the young priest. Afterwards, she writes to him in a letter:
… I have lived in the most horrible solitude, alone with the desperate memory of a child. And it seems to me that another child has brought me to life again…
And this young child, a priest, consumed by illness, wreaked by frailty of spirit, can only marvel at the power through weakness:
Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!
Not long after this, he succumbs to his illness. A life too short, a mission seems unaccomplished. But his last words faintly uttered on his deathbed are as powerful as the God who sends him:
Does it matter? Grace is everywhere…
And in the film, these three words leave me with one of the most poignant endings of all the films that I’ve seen:
“All is grace.”
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
English Edition of The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, translated by Pamela Morris, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, PA, 1965, 298 pages.
Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936, was winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française.
The Film Review of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951).
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.
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.
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…”