Silence (Scorsese; 2016)

This story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in order to find out what happened to their former master and bring him back home both literally and spiritually has a long history.  Silence is originally a novel written by Shusaku Endo in 1966 and was given to Scorsese as a gift when he had finished filming The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  One year later Scorsese was asked by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to play Vincent Van Gogh in Dreams, and Scorsese decided to read the novel while he has working in Japan.  The intellectual outsider’s take on the Catholic religion appealed tremendously to Scorcese and he knew he wanted to make a film out of it but other contracts and projects kept getting in the way until he had finished The Wolf of Wall Street.  Now his passion project of close to thirty years is finally getting a general release and the world gets to see a Scorsese piece focusing on his passion other than New York, his Catholic faith.

The reason Scorsese has become such a legend of film making is his incredible eye for setting up intricate camera shots.  He’s a master at setting up both moods and story using methods which are anything but “by the book” while also often incorporating many pieces.  In Silence, Scorsese uses simpler, though no less beautiful, methods than he normally does, eschewing the wonder of intricacy for the starkness of simplicity.  We see more shots from one angle held for a long time than is normal, and with edits spaced far between.  While due to the sets and set pieces no one could ever confuse Silence with a stage play, the visual work on display here has a lot in common with one worrying more about facial expressions and dialogue for extended periods of time than on scenery and action.silence-refer

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the major roles of the two priests on the mission in Japan, with Andrew Garfield being the true focal character, and both really get a chance to show their acting chops here.  Their characters immediately realize that they may have gotten themselves in far over their heads in a situation where not only is their very existence illegal, but they don’t understand a thing about the people they want to help. Both excellently express their feelings of helplessness, frustration, fear, and bewilderment while still maintaining individual identities.  The rest of the cast aside from Liam Neeson are various Japanese peasants or members of the Japanese Inquisition, and again, the acting on display is phenomenal, possibly even better than that of our main characters.  The Japanese in the film not only have to present complicated relationships to the priests and to the Catholic religion, but they have to do it using a very broken English, but not so broken that it is overly difficult to understand.  Issei Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue gave a particularly impressive performance having to be intimidating, charming, vicious, and ultimately the focus of Silence‘s deep and somewhat astonishing themes about culture and religion, while still having a very thick accent and limited English vocabulary.

In the screenplay which gives us these astonishing themes, we have quite an excellent adaptation, though I can’t speak to how accurate it is since I haven’t read the novel.  The story itself, and this is the one rather large weakness of the film, is very slow paced.  There is little action in Silence‘s 2 hour and 41 minute running time, and even the tension is spread out over long intervals interspersed with conversations on religion and philosophy as well as extended camera shots of the Japanese landscape and its denizens.  I found, in fact, that the majority of the interest and entertainment to be had from Silence is not during the period you are actually watching the film, but in the hours and days afterward when you are letting what you saw play out in your head and you get a chance to interpret and ponder everything contained in the film.  This is a film that demands a second viewing to get from it everything you can, the first viewing really just being little more than a preparation for the true experience.

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As to those themes themselves, I can’t say I am certain I caught everything in one viewing, but Scorsese has a lot to say about the nature of religion in relation to the culture it has permeated.  A Christian in Europe and a Christian in Japan are not only limited in communication, but they can be said to be following an altogether different religion with only the most surface and dogmatic elements of the religion being the same.  How it inspires and affects its followers, and even what the followers perceive themselves to be worshiping can be radically different, and thus the effect the religion has on the culture of a given region can also be radically different.  It’s this observation which gives Silence its power, and which also make it an odd companion piece to Arrival released earlier in the year.  Silence also has strong similarities to the book and television miniseries Shogun in its portrayal of Europeans impacting and causing upheaval in Japanese society.

Final recommendation:  Silence is not a film for everyone.  While it is intensely thoughtful and has as deep a message as one can hope for in cinema, it’s plodding pace and nearly meditative style means that the rewards you get from the film are gained after you have left the theater and find yourself thinking about it, not in the moment.  If you are ready for something methodical and philosophical, however, Silence not only delivers on those fronts, but can also be beautiful and has some fantastic acting on display, as well.

 

 

 

 

Hacksaw Ridge (Gibson; 2016)

Conscientious objector, it’s a term that most people don’t entirely understand, myself included before I’d seen Hacksaw Ridge.  I thought a conscientious objector was a person who refused to perform military service due to moral or religious reasons, but Hacksaw Ridge is a film about Deacon Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who signed up for World War II military service and was on the front lines of the titular battle which took place on the island of Okinawa.  What made him a conscientious objector was not his refusal to go to war, it was his refusal to pick up and use a weapon.

To say that Hacksaw Ridge‘s director, Mel Gibson, has become something of a controversial figure is an understatement.  It’s not the place nor the style of this page to go into details, but suffice it to say that there are many out there who thought that his days working in Hollywood were close to done as we’ve seen little from him outside of smaller scale acting jobs for the past decade.   Perhaps Mr. Gibson had just realized that discretion on his part was necessary for a while, and now he’s decided it’s time he can come back, because Hacksaw Ridge is quite the announcement that Mel Gibson is not done in Hollywood, yet.

This is definitely a Gibson style movie.  It’s a little hackneyed much of the time.  The dialogue is cliched and trite, the music swells and ebbs at exactly the appropriate times, and the plot predictable and overly familiar.  But, when it comes to telling a story and gripping you emotionally through visuals, there is never any holding back, and this is where Gibson and his crew show themselves to be true artisans.  I can’t speak to the authenticity of the battle scenes, as I’ve never fought in one, and certainly not in World War II, but I can say that the experience this film gives us is one that is brutal, visceral, and terrifying.  The battle scenes here are quite comparable to the storming of the beach in Saving Private Ryan, except that here the scenes happen toward the last half of the film after we’ve already met the platoon and are invested in the characters, making the experience all the more gut wrenching.

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Michael Bay needs to watch Hacksaw Ridge and take copious notes.

Unfortunately, also like typical Gibson, everything about the storytelling which isn’t visually driven runs to the predictable and overdone.  The dialogue is so typical Hollywood as to be laughable and distracting, the beats of the story are cliched war movie tropes from the chance love at first sight meeting just before going off to war, to the introduction to all the kooky characters in the barracks scene, to the inspirational speeches before a battle everything here is more than just familiar, it’s trite.

The acting in Hacksaw Ridge is also nothing particularly stand out in either a good nor a bad way.  The actors do serviceable work, never calling attention to the fact that they’re playing a character, but also never going beyond stereotypes we’ve seen time and again either.  The acting on display is familiar enough to never be distracting, but also so familiar that it’s rarely, if ever, inspiring, either.

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If this looks familiar it’s because you’ve seen A Few Good Men, or Paths of Glory, or Top Gun, or Rules of Engagement, or…

The story of Hacksaw Ridge, aside from it’s focal character, is nothing we haven’t seen many, many times before.  The visuals of Hacksaw Ridge, however, and it’s point of view do set it apart from the many which have come before it, and do make it a film very much worth watching.  It may not stimulate much on an intellectual level, though the central idea of a man’s duty to country versus a country’s duty to a man does have some real heft to it philosophically, but emotionally it has one hell of an impact.

Rating:  7.0 out of 10