Thursday, January 03, 2019

Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues
And the rest is

(Warning: story and ending discussed in explicit detail)

The film begins with the sound of cicadas whirring rhythmically over a black background. The sound drops out, the film title (simple white letters) flashes onscreen. Cut to a vision of hell: a guard cloaked in steam stands beside a wood shelf topped with severed heads. We are at the volcanic springs of Unzen, near Nagasaki, where friars are strung up on crosses and longhandled ladles with holes sprinkle boiling water, delicately poaching their skin (Today of course the springs are a popular vacation resort). 

Welcome to Martin Scorsese's idea of heaven: his thirty-years-in-the-making version of Shusaku Endo's Silence, completed at last and screened to near-universal acclaim (and near-empty theaters) in 2016.

It's an admittedly hard sell: a 161 minute film full of religious discussion, horrific torture, interminable passages free of dialogue. Two Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are reluctantly sent to Japan to seek out their teacher Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly apostasized--'reluctantly' because Christianity has been outlawed with priests and followers (as in the prologue) being either excruciated or executed. 

Much of the film is intense and, as has been noted, one-note--intentionally so, I believe. Rodrigues and Garupe are spiritual freaks in this modern era of compromise and relativism; Scorsese (and Endo before him) presumably realized the need to persuade us that spirituality and love of Christ matter at all before we care about what they're giving up. Roughly half the novel is narrated through Rodrigues' own words, letters sent to friends back in Portugal; more than two hours of Scorsese's film sees Japan through Rodrigues' eyes, filtering sights sounds textures smells taste through his own five senses.

It's a wondrous land, Scorsese's Japan (actually the island state of Taiwan, which has had a long complicated relationship with the former country), beautiful and terrifying both. The priests are deposited at a beach and we see them at a cave, its twin openings like the inside of a skull whose eyehole they are about to enter. In perhaps one of the film's most horrific sequences three men are tied to crosses (again that wooden Christian symbol, not coincidentally a classic instrument of torture for Romans and Japanese alike) staked near the shore. Scorsese prepares us with huge waves crashing on rock, all thunder and saltwater hiss; then we watch a wall of blue slate fill the screen, roll across the screen, swallow the three men alive. 

Scorsese sprinkles the film with crucifixes--hidden up the sleeve, trodden by sandaled feet, fixed to the ground and creaking from the weight of distressed bodies. Not content to show the physical object, at one point Scorsese's camera approximates the motion of that quintessentially Catholic blessing--an overhead camera watching as Rodrigues, Garupe, and their superior walk from the left end of the screen to the other (from Jesuit college to Macanese bar, seeking passage and a guide); a later overhead camera watches their ship rear up from the bottom of the screen, panning ahead to the misted dawn (from the relative safety of Macau to the shrouded mystery of Japan). The sign of the cross, performed in reverse order.

Rodrigues meets Mokichi (cyberpunk filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto), a kakure kirishitan who stares at his chest. He realizes Mokichi is eying his crucifix which he takes off, lays on both palms, gently pushes across the screen in offering. Two grimy hesitant paws close in from either side to accept--hesitant as if unable to believe their luck, from either side as if fearful of retraction or escape. All four hands clasp and affectionately squeeze; Mokichi's unfolds, to confirm the miraculous gift. A wordless moment, Bressonian in its regard for gesture and texture, arguably the most poignant in the film.

Alone and on the run, Rodrigues wanders through Goto Island, the massive unspeaking stones surrounded by luxuriant greenery standing almost as a rebuke to the man. What's the matter with him? Why doesn't he just recant, save himself and others the pain, enjoy the gorgeous scenery?

Because it's what he is? The kirishitans' hardpressed faith overwhelms Rodrigues--however appalling the tortures devised their near-superhuman endurance is if anything even more impressive. Mokichi hangs on his cross blinking and struggling to draw breath between waves, his skin cooking gradually from the brine; he responds by singing a hymn. Later we witness a sudden beheading, the hapless kirishitan's friends and family shrieking in dismay--but no recantation. Rodrigues is practically shamed into stepping up: who is he to presume to teach these people about faith? 

A crucial role model for Rodrigues though he never realizes it till later is the drunken guide who first leads him into Japan, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka)--a Judas figure partly inspired by the mestizo in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (arguably this novel's spiritual ancestor). Kichijiro represents one path to redemption: no pride or self-dignity whatsoever, able to beg forgiveness and betray his benefactor with little hesitation or sense of contradiction. The figure also recalls Roberto Rossellini's Flowers of St. Francis--the holy fool who debases himself regularly, holds no illusions, yet refuses to submit to despair.

Then there is Ferreira himself, renamed Sawano Chuan. He's a closer figure to Rodrigues, having once taught the priest, and acts as the Jesuit's doppelganger, commenting on the prisoner's experience, pointing out a carving he made in the same cell and the not unsimilar thoughts running through his head at the time ("I prayed too, Rodrigues. It doesn't help.").

Note that Rodrigues once captured isn't really touched--O he's shoved around and shaken up, but compared to what's before him the experience is nothing. Rodrigues' odyssey in the film's first half has a random happenstance shape; after his arrest it has the feel of a lurid carnival ride, the horrors choreographed with exquisite subtlety by Nagasaki magistrate Inoue (actor and comedian Issey Ogata)--moments of serenity alternating with moments of violence (inflicted strictly on others), the protagonist constantly prodded with pointed questions. Physically torturing Rodrigues would actually defeat Inoue's purpose: he needs the priest comfortable (relatively speaking) and clearly thinking before the final submission. Masahiro Shinoda's 1971 adaptation is an interesting alternative take, an angry look at the arrogance of European authority figures presuming to know what's best for Japan, but in my book Shinoda made a misstep when he hung his Rodrigo over a pit--it suggested that perhaps the magistrate wasn't all that confident about his cause, needed to physically massage his victims for the proper results. 

The moment recalls (of all things) Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. He knows what he's about to do is wrong, he's been taught all his life it's wrong, but his beloved friend Jim is at stake. He searches up and down back and forth in and out of the thickets of his head before deciding: yes--yes he'll do it; he'll commit a crime and go to hell. Catholics are known for the paradoxical nature of their faith and I suspect we glory in them; the mental exercise helps us deal with the equally paradoxical conundrums of life and failure--a kind of vaccine if you like against the absolutism of despair.  

That said you wonder if the terms as set by the Japanese are truly reasonable. "You are causing their suffering!" Rodrigues is told again and again. No--he isn't causing their suffering, Inoue is. He can end it tho--that much they are upfront and honest about. The voice he finally hears in his head people have complained about time and again. Is it God? The Devil? The result of days of anguish and exhaustion? His own self justifying what he feels he must do? To my ears the voice sometimes resembles Ferreira's (that is, Liam Neeson's) sometimes resembles Scorsese; to me they sound suitably ambiguous.

Scorsese (with help from frequent collaborator Jay Cocks) elaborates on the aftermath, Rodrigues' (once again shapeless) odyssey, this time through the consequences of apostasy. Scorsese is accused of treating the ex-priest with kid gloves* but seeing Ferreira's constantly downcast eyes and Rodrigues' own clamped-down demeanor you wonder (this is a film full of wonders, or at least of wondering): he spends the rest of his life carefully guarded, carefully watching his every word and gesture; one imagines Winston Smith sitting in a cafe at the end of 1984, looking defeated. Is this perhaps Inoue's most diabolical torment, to present a man so totally subservient to another's will that when he's granted a moment of freedom--Kichijiro for the umpteenth time begging forgiveness--he hesitates? You recall Wladyslaw Szpilman in Polanski's The Pianist wandering through the ruins of Warsaw, surviving yet wondering as to the point of his survival. Rodrigues hears Kichijiro's confession, a priest once again--but does his act of ministry mean anything after years of denial? Is he mouthing the words of the ritual just to get rid of an annoying possibly dangerous supplicant?

*(Not just kid gloves, Garfield looks practically beautiful onscreen, an idealized notion of the Western Jesus--which makes one wonder if perhaps Scorsese here as in his other earlier film on Jesus isn't somehow skewering our collective image of Christ as a blue-eyed white man with long flowing locks)

Likewise when Rodrigues dies and is cremated the camera glides into the coffin and into the ex-priest's cupped hands to find a tiny cross--is this the hidden inner kernel of the man, his unspoken refusal to give up? Or is the cross pointless in the face of all he's done before--maybe something planted there posthumously (as is suggested) by his Japanese wife? What's the significance of a man who works for one cause half his life, works against it in the latter half, goes to his death with maybe one contradictory little symbol hidden in his palm? Is Scorsese (like Shinoda) betraying the beautiful ambiguity of Endo's text or perhaps extending it to excruciating length--giving us a taste of Rodrigues' long quiet night of the soul?

The answer of course is--but Scorsese takes his cue from his deity and leaves us with the sound of cicadas, whirring rhythmically away to a blank black screen.

First published in Businessworld 12.28.18 

Crucifixion at the beach

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