The funny thing is, they make such damn good cameras

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Sorry for the, as usual, flippant title. We really liked Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE. It’s long but engrossing. The shooting choices are unobtrusive but shrewd and imaginative (all the shots from inside the cage!). The performances are marvelous, discounting the now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t “Portuguese” accents (doesn’t matter). The photography is stunning — ALL photography seems to be stunning nowadays, but the intelligence behind this made it more than just pretty pictures.

It is a long film about apostasy, which not everybody cares about. I mean, religion is all nonsense to me, but I can get behind the issue of suffering for an ideal, whatever it is. (Nagging voice in head while the virtues of the Catholic faith are preached under torture: “Yes, but what about the Spanish Inquisition?”) My favourite Catholic film is THE DEVILS.

So we saw it in the refurbished Cameo 2, which has now been rotated 90 degrees so that instead of a long corridor-shaped room with a tiny screen, it’s a big screen with only three rows of seats. All the seats at the sides will give you a distorted angle, and the front row is too close, so I’d say there’s about ten good seats. The front row was empty (Saturday afternoon). So this one may not have the B.O. appeal of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

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Scorsese was a little perturbed when Sergio Leone told him “It’s your most mature film,” I think after KING OF COMEDY. To Marty and his friends, “mature” was a euphemism for “boring”. But while you could praise WOLF OF, as Fiona did, as being a young man’s film, the equivalent praise for SILENCE would focus on its, yes, maturity. But it’s not boring at all, it’s fascinating. And has a surer grasp of its subject and its world than KUNDUN did. I liked KUNDUN, but I found it a little unclear. Because there’s a lot of “Yes, but” when it comes to making a film about the heroic Dalai Lama, having to do with theocracy and so on, and this is all stuff the film very much doesn’t want to deal with. Like Howard Hughes being a horrible, horrible person — THE AVIATOR should really have been a lot more like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

In this case, omitting the church’s more horrendous side is acceptable, I guess, because it’s not part of this story. We might wish Scorsese would make a film about Catholicism’s dark side, a film which would be more current, and we might say how interesting that would be — but it would only work if Scorsese were interested in that story. And I guess he isn’t. Besides, by his aesthetic, you couldn’t make a film about, say, child abuse without showing it. That’s what he does with unacceptable images — he watches them and then forces us to.

SILENCE deserves to be seen — you’ll have a good time, I swear. It’s a top filmmaker at the top of his game, really engaged in what he’s doing. And the overhead shots from TAXI DRIVER and LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST are back (one early on, on the church steps, seems to have been lifted from Preminger’s THE CARDINAL) and this time, for the first time I feel they’re Hitchcockian — God’s POV. He may choose not to speak, mostly, but He’s watching.

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9 Responses to “The funny thing is, they make such damn good cameras”

  1. Kundun did deal with the dark side of Tibet quite a bit. It made it clear that it was a theocracy that “monks had guns” and they had political prisoners. It portrays Dalai Lama as trying to reform that and the Chinese taking away that chance before it can even happen. It’s not a political film yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s simplistic either. It also avoids demonizing the Chinese, you have Mao who is really smarmy and charming in that movie, and there’s a montage where the Dalai Lama listens to stories about how the Chinese suffered under imperialism and during the Second World War. That’s part of the tragedy, the oppressed becoming oppressors.

    And Silence, I think is more interesting as a critique because it scrutinizes “benign missionaries” and insists that there’s no separation between them and the bad ones. So I think the whole “Spanish Inquisition” complaint misses the point. The amazing thing in the film is that Scorsese is able to humanize everyone. Both the victims and the executioners and it’s a little disturbing that he does that, a little mysterious and what’s interesting is how SILENCE serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone. Like you have a scene where Rodrigues punches a wall like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (and you can even see him stepping on the fumi-e as similar to jake breaking that title belt of his), you have an epilogue like The Age of Innocence where the aged version of the hero looks back on his life (only here presented from the outside) and there’s a reference to Casino, where the guards force them to dig a hole which they use for a hit later.

    Silence you get a movie that connects all of Scorsese’s movies: the religious movies, the secular movies, the stuff that fits and the stuff that doesn’t. It’s a Rosetta Stone. And the overall idea of Silence, is simply living with evil, i.e. trying to survive and endure in hiding, without help, without succor and without salvation. And the finale is such a mysterious thing…like Rodrigues wife in the epilogue obviously inserts that crucifix in his basket coffin…but that does that mean she’s a hidden christian, that Rodrigues entrusted her to do that. It’s just mysterious.

  2. He was outwardly living the apostacy, yet inwardly part of Christ…don’t forget that Ignatian spirituality includes hearing….and he heard to go ahead and step. It devestated him, yes, but he still lived out obedience. She wasn’t a convert so much as with all Japanese funeral rituals…something like that tiny crucifix needed to to with him.

  3. Thanks!

    The inquisitor has a scene that echoes Mao’s “Religion is poison” speech in Kundun very closely indeed. (A friend objected to the campy Mao, saying Mao was furiously heterosexual – though he liked ’em young.)

    The fact that Scorsese has been thinking about this for literally decades certainly shows in the way his other movies bleed into it.

    As i recall, the discordant note in Kundun is the Lama saying “We were starting to change,” when we haven’t really seen that. We’re meant to take it on faith, I guess.

  4. We see the Dalai Lama releasing all prisoners, and the fact that he is willing to treat a Godless State like China and saying that Buddhism can find common ground with communism. That’s quite remarkable for him to do in the context of the early Cold War. So Kundun does show that. It definitely doesn’t go fully into state building certainly because Scorsese wanted to deal with the personal story, and the religious issue. I don’t think Mao is campy so much smarmy. The scene he’s introduced to us, before a giant portrait of himself (a la Citizen Kane, an obvious and very fitting reference of a young firebrand become corrupt sellout) grounds us in how to see him.

    Inquisitor Inoue is different because he doesn’t hate Christianity nor does he dislike Rodrigues. He just wants to protect Japan. At the end he tells Rodrigues he knows about the remaining Hidden Christians but he’s not going to persecute them because they are a harmless minority…more or less insisting that Rodrigues spend the rest of his life being his stooge to prevent further persecution visited on them.

    I definitely think there’s more to the wife…because we have that shot in the funeral where she smashes the pot at Rodrigues’ funeral and she hesitates as she does that and bends slightly. We also see her from the same side angle medium shot the other Christians we saw at the Prison were. That implies that she’s only doing the Buddhist ritual outwardly and that secretly she’s Christian.

  5. Well, Tibet had little choice but to try to reason with China. And Saddam Hussein also released all his prisoners as soon as it became clear invasion was underway…

    The inquisitor also implies that the Christian in Japan, cut off from the western Church, were developing their own form of the faith, which is intriguing.

  6. Great line at the end: ”What they will find instead is a work of the utmost seriousness in which religious faith and apostasy are two sides of the same coin.”

    One interesting thing if you compare Scorsese’s movie with the novel is that the climax is soft-pedalled in the former. Endo’s novel is a lot more devotional. The climax where Rordrigues hears God’s voice is treated as the real thing in the book (but then it’s in first person) whereas Scorsese doesn’t pay as much attention to it. He’s more interested in the outward physical endurance of suffering and humiliation than in the certainty of faith. In that respects the film is closer to Bunuel’s NAZARIN, which also dealt with the “silence of God” (there’s a homage to that when Rodrigues is captured and brought to the converts Monica and Juan, and she gives him a fruit).

    There’s also that beautiful hymn “We are the on way to paradise” an actual Japanese Christian hymn which shows up in the opening of Imamura’s VENGEANCE IS MINE (whose serial killing hero is a descendant of hidden christians from the Goto Island, which is one of the settings in the film).And if you compare the movie Silence to the English translation (by jesuit William Johnston) it’s also a lot more critical of the Jesuit mission being trojan horses for colonialism (which the Japanese authorities cite as their justification for persecuting the Christians that I think is quite clear from the film).

    Endo and Scorsese’s main idea is that the minority of hidden Christians are truer and authentic to Jesus in their love than the portuguese mission. That Christianity is more meaningful when it is hidden and private. So it’s not a proseltyzing work by any means.

  7. The is probably the most Scorsese of movies; the opening VO line of Mean Streets by way of the Santoro Brothers death scene in Casino. I found it overwhelming in all the best ways.

  8. It’s so beautiful. Scorsese has definitely done more crucifictions than anybody else ever (unless you count each one at the end of Spartacus).

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