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.

 

Movie Countdown: #50 – Breaking the Waves (1996)

breaking

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