Movie Review: “Silence”, Return of the Religious Epic, sees Scorsese in top form

SILENCE

Dir. Martin Scorsese / US / 2016

SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:

For about an hour and a half, the film looks like a masterpiece and often feels like a masterpiece. The trailers made it seem like Scorsese was channeling Kurosawa, but the early images of boggy fog-shrouded Japan have a much closer kinship to the greatest Japanese film poet of all, Kenji Mizoguchi, and his masterpiece, Ugetsu. And now Scorserse, driven by a love of the source material and a fascination with the subject, uses Japan to expand his idea of Christianity. The early scenes are Scorsese’s best work in exactly 40 years. They contain at least three great movies at once, none overshadowing the other. There is the spread of Christian piety among the Japanese peasants, which is the closest thing to revolutionary fervor these people have ever known. There is the folly of the Jesuit padres, who denounce the silence of God in a land that knows no real silence of its own; that is in fact bursting with life, with Prieto’s cinematography suggesting a kind of pantheistic elemental force enveloping these strangers. And in the great, furtive sequences in the caves, the villages, and the hideouts Scorsese evokes what primitive Christianity must have looked like in the first two or three centuries after Christ, when it was still a religion of rebellion. The Jesuits understood the original power of pre-Roman Christianity and sought to rekindle it, and Silence recreates this state of ecstatic Christendom, its aura of holiness. (What could be more revolutionary in Hollywood?)

But this great expansive picture becomes stunted in the movie’s second half. The film begins to look inwardly, meaning we get too close a look at Andrew Garfield’s face, his conscience and tortured soul in a string of unimaginative claustrophobic sequences that go on for too long and often feel dead. And so the limitless possibilities of the first half are reduced to theological abstractions (platonic God vs. nature), debates on what does or doesn’t grow in Japan and the Christian take on suffering. The problem isn’t just that what is said isn’t very interesting, but that it robs the film of revelations that should and could have happened organically. The movie becomes so lucid about its ideas that it kills them. There’s little mystery left to the film when it approaches the tortured final sequences with Liam Neeson’s character and God finally decides to speak (He should’ve stayed silent; there’s too much voiceover as it is.) What the movie gains in conceptual clarity, it loses in stature. The Japanese Ugetsu didn’t just expose the link between nature and spirituality: it went further by showing that the world of the senses is haunted. The idea that the Jesuits in Silence find God by denying Him—that is, by renouncing the martyrdom at the core of Christianity—is extraordinarily powerful and suggestive, but it has only a conceptual effect. The revelation is lacking in spirit.

Even with these flaws, Silence is in another league from virtually anything that came out last year, and in a different universe than the La La Lands of this world. It’s masterful in a number of ways. (Adam Driver does fascinating work as one of the Jesuits; Issei Ogata is great once more. And Rodrigo Prieto outdoes himself as a cinematographer.) Its fervor and ambition are exciting and genuine, and these are qualities that have been nearing extinction for a while now. As for Scorsese, this is his most epic work to date. Only Taxi Driver stands taller overall.

 

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The Classics: Chapter 4 – Pixote (1981)

PIXOTEBefore City of God there was Pixote, Héctor Babenco’s stark lucid account of Brazilian youths growing up in squalor in the 70s. It chronicles the life of 10-year-old Pixote and his companions, from repression and jail time to pickpocketing in Rio to close encounters with prostitution and death. Babenco makes the audience feel the urgency of the present time the way the characters experience it: with the past being too shameful to speak of and the future non-existent, the present, for all its terror, is all that’s left. As the world crumbles all around them and the kids lose respect not just for the lives of others but for their own, the movie’s vitality risks becoming jarring if not outright cruel. But it quickly becomes apparent that the full immersion in the amoral present they share is the closest thing they’ll ever know to redemption: it’s where their camaraderie, their symbiotic relationship with each other, even their shifting sexual confusion are built. And though the movie is clearly an heir to the great neo-realist films of the 40s and 50s, it goes deeper than them. It touches on forbidden, wordless things. When Pixote meets the volatile prostitute Sueli (Marília Pêra, superb) and discovers she’s had an abortion, he is horrified. She feels judged and lashes out at him in a rage, but he’s horrified not for her but for himself—his entire orphaned existence coming into focus. The relationship that builds between the whore-mother and her adopted children is monstrously, inexplicably rich. The very protagonists can’t figure out the nature of it, so they just go through it blindly, until their roles become so confused that they devour each other. For Pixote, it’s a return to the womb from hell. In the movie’s best scene, he goes to the prostitute’s den looking for a mother’s embrace. She tentatively takes on this role. But Pixote is no child and never was. Retreat to innocence is impossible, and he is vomited out one final time. Alone, he isn’t just worthless: he’s not even alive. The film goes beyond surface moral and social indignation. This is an artist’s statement. Yet no matter how hard the implications this movie has a pulse like few others, with the natural energy of the places and the actors giving it its incomparable freshness.

Dir. Héctor Babenco / 1981 / Brazil

The Classics: Chapter 3 – Hunger (1966)

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Henning Carlsen’s brilliant film about a starving artist, set in 19th century Norway. Per Oscarsson plays Pontus, the homeless writer who holds on to his delusions of control and creativity in the midst of famine. It’s one of the all-time great performances. The town of Christiana (today’s Oslo) is populated by a swarm of strange faces. Pontus spies at these faces from a distance, convincing himself that they are the subjects of his art—that they’re his misshapen muses. As far as he’s concerned, they provide him with inspiration. The genius of this film is the gradual, horrifying revelation that he has it all wrong: the faces are staring at him and his deteriorating body and mind in disgust. The artist is transformed from subject to object, from creator to sewer rat. He becomes the grotesque character in someone else’s narrative: an anonymous narrative in which he is the joke. And so the fictions that he makes up to preserve his sense of self-worth as a human being and his role as an artist become increasingly meaner, more desperate, fueled by paranoia. He gives his last coin to a homeless man, a “true” dispossessed (he won’t allow to think of himself in those terms) to appear charitable and gentlemanly one more time, to set himself apart from the poor fellow. This portrait of the artist as a scavenger—as a cannibal toying with self-destruction because he can’t accept he’s not looking at the world from the heights anymore—has the pull of a nightmare. A true god needs no nourishment, and Pontus dreams about fighting rabid dogs for food. It makes the title take on a dual meaning: the hunger within him is more terrifying than the famine that hits Norway. Yet there is something sublime, even heroic in his determination not to bend. The artist will not be destroyed by anything or anyone but himself. He trudges on, like a cockroach after a holocaust.

Dir. Henning Carlsen / 1966 / Denmark

The Classics: Chapter 2 – Baby Doll (1956)

babydoll

Baby Doll: Excuse me, Mr. Vacarro, but I wouldn’t dream of eatin’ a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth.

Silva Vacarro: You’ve got many refinements.

Baby Doll: Thank you.

Elia Kazan’s hilarious erotic farce about two men (played by Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) squabbling over cotton in Mississippi. Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), Malden’s virginal 19-year-old wife, is at the center of their fight. She hasn’t agreed to consummate the marriage, so she sleeps by herself in her crib. Wallach’s vengeance involves bringing her under his manly spell. The comedy in Tennessee Williams’ screenplay is that Baby Doll is only dubiously innocent. Baby Doll is no good at long division, but she’s great at fighting off the heat with Coca-Cola and sucking her thumb. She giggles for the entire duration of the movie, stuck in a state of perpetual flirtatiousness: the sexually charged pent-up atmosphere feels like Kazan’s version of hell. But this hell, shot in all its sunny glory by Boris Kaufman, is very inviting. The scenes between Baker and Wallach are among the funniest I’ve seen—they play like some perverse deflowering. (Their courting climaxes with a game of hide and seek.) For the two men, Baby Doll is just a test of their virility, but she’s playing a game of her own. They provide her with entertainment. Carroll Baker is amazing in the title role: radiant, wicked and unaware of the camera. This movie has a quintessentially American sense of irony: the very earth seems to be laughing at the characters, down to the extras who mercilessly (and openly) mock Malden from beginning to end. It’s a riot.

Dir. Elia Kazan / 1956 / United States

The Classics: Chapter 1 – Breaking the Waves (1996)

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A religious film to rank with Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. God is far from dead in Lars von Trier’s dank, windswept hell-on-Earth landscape. On the contrary, He is alive and kicking and flaunting a perverse sense of humor, speaking so sternly that He sounds rather like a demon. Wondrous Bess (Emily Watson, resembling an ironic Liv Ullmann) is so full of God that she’s stripped the rest of the world of His presence. She’s swallowed Him up whole, and they have the most incredible conversations in long intruding close-ups. (The grainy, filthy cinematography suggests an otherwise godless world. Even the cliffs seem anguished.)

Bess has been taught to see life on earth as a ruin. Life exists to be fled, not to be clung to. Yet clinging to life is just what she does upon marrying the life-loving foreigner, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), latching on to him gleefully, dangerously. She only ever frees herself from the violence of her affections when communicating with God. Automatically the village becomes distrustful of her and her version of “love.” (The stark, vigilant Calvinist elders seem to have been directly abducted from a Dreyer movie, and von Trier exposes the hilarity of their pretensions without having to force a thing.) When Jan is left physically paralyzed after an accident and can no longer have sex with Bess, he creates a ploy for her to go on living. He demands that she have intercourse with other men. Assuming the role of an unwilling Mary Magdalene, Bess gradually becomes the town’s whore in order to “save her husband,” culminating in her own stoning. (There is, however, no Jesus to stop the mob.) Naturally, she is excommunicated and condemned to hell.

But Bess as presented by von Trier and Watson is no self-sacrificing martyr. She is not Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, purified by the ecstasy of her body and soul’s communion with Christ. Nor is she the witch from Day of Wrath, ravished by an overpowering devotion to the pleasures of life. Bess’ communication with God is rather more pragmatic, more self-serving: God tells her exactly what she wants to hear, feeding her every obsession. As for life, she takes displeasure in a great many things. Her tangible idea of “life” is confined to a single man. It is this “innocence,” this quality of being a little “funny in the head,” that makes her a saint in the eyes of other characters (and part of the audience.) But Bess herself goes through none of the standard religious transcendence. Rather than purity, it is the scope and the single-minded intent of her isolation that render her a mythological character. Her world is closed off to even Jan. Bess’ mind-heaven has real power and we gain entry to it through von Trier’s intuitive use of close-ups (no one since Bergman had extracted more from the human face or shown more interest in it.) And the absurd spark in her eyes is unforgettable, as is her triumph over two thousand years of abstruse theology as she asks the elders, “How can a man love a Word?”

This movie has possibly the worst ending to any great film as church bells ring in heaven, as if von Trier wanted to reassure us that Bess was saved from the fiery pits. But it’s a minor desecration: the movie is a near-masterpiece.

Dir. Lars von Trier / 1996 / Denmark

Movie Review: “Arrival” (Spoilers)

arrival

A cerebral take on what extraterrestrial contact may look like. Director Denis Villeneuve chooses an intimate approach, leaving the usual mayhem and human stupidity that characterizes end-of-the-world scenarios in the background. Amy Adams is our eyes and ears into it all, and she’s rarely been better—her performance has no preconceptions. She plays a linguist recruited to translate the aliens in their magnificent egg-shaped monoliths. Jeremy Renner plays the language-wary mathematician. These aliens (“heptapods”) are the cinematic antithesis of the Xenomorph: they bring about linguistic rapture and a god’s understanding of (non-sequential) Time. They are an idealist’s aliens. The movie is so clever that you almost overlook its essentially religious narrative. It sets up what seems like an insurmountable spiritual crisis and goes from bleakness to hope to ecstasy, culminating in a kind of reverse cosmic resurrection, but it’s constructed in a way that feels new, and there’s blissfully very little of the “love is the universal tissue that hides behind every proton” nonsense of other recent science fiction. This one is stimulating all the way through, and each close encounter is surprising on its own.

Movie Review: Isabelle Huppert is “Elle”

elle

LIGHT SPOILERS ahead:

Paul Verhoeven’s disarming comedy of horrors opens with the aftermath of a rape. Isabelle Huppert picks herself up from the mess on the floor as if the attack had been inflicted upon somebody else entirely, her bourgeois nonchalance rising intact. She is dissociated from herself to the point of being her own voyeur. She plays with people for the sheer pleasure of taking in their reactions, to test their limits—to see how emotions affect them. She herself is unaffected. Michèle Leblanc is a woman for whom “reality” bears no discernible meaning: when her comatose mother lies dying in the hospital bed, Michèle asks the nurse if it’s possible she might be faking it. (She then plays dead while having sex with her lover, as way of paying homage.) As the head of a videogame company, she demands that the rape scenes featured in the games be more “orgasmic”. She nurtures violent, taboo sexual fantasies involving her own rapist. She is only genuinely caught off guard when her sense of virtual reality is threatened. And yet the brilliance of Huppert’s Michèle is that she is entirely free of malice: this may be one of the most innocently amoral characters in recent memory. She is clueless as to how she “ought” to act and react. She lacks the instincts for such things, so she hovers over everything. But there is no grand scheme, no insidious masterplan driving her. Isabelle Huppert gives possibly the best female performance of the decade: a triumph of subversion. A character like this has no right to appear so alive, but Huppert is brutally funny and sexy in the role, as translucent as she is opaque. She avoids turning her into a post-human alien: her Michèle—neither feminist nor victim—is very much after her own pleasure. And Verhoeven touches on everything from the death of God to hyperrealism, at times articulating the psychology of sensations that Cronenberg anticipated in “Videodrome”. In all its comic horror, the movie gives birth to a new kind of female character, someone who’s been through all the roles—mother, daughter, leader, provider, victim, perpetrator—and stays a puzzle to herself.