Posts Tagged historic films
Year of release: 1984 Directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.
“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.
The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.
Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.
It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.
However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.
As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.
Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.
Personal Recommendation: A
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Year of release: 2016 Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson.
I tried to avoid spoilers, but it’s really hard to discuss Silence without referencing the climactic act. However, I remained as vague as possible, but consider this a mild spoiler warning.
Ever since I read Shusaku Endo’s literary masterpiece Silence last January, one question that has haunted me is: what would I have done had I been in Rodrigues’ place at the story’s climax? It’s a question I still don’t know the answer to, and one which any attentive reader of the novel will be forced to grapple with for some time. One of the highest compliments I can pay to Scorsese’s film adaptation is that it treats that question with the same amount of gravitas as the book does, and it forces the viewer to wrestle with his or her answer to it in the same way.
After releasing The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, an Episcopalian bishop introduced Scorsese to the novel Silence, and shortly thereafter Scorsese fell in love with it, and he has wanted to adapt it into a film since then. The wait was worth it. Scorsese’s love and admiration of the source material shines through in every frame. There is hardly a sentence from the book which is not translated onto the screen. If there were an award for most painstakingly, laboriously faithful adaptation of a novel, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better candidate than Scorsese’s Silence, a few small changes aside.
When Jesuit missionaries Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) learn of a rumor that their beloved mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) apostatized in Nagasaki after three days of torture, they refuse to believe it. They implore their superior (Ciarán Hinds) to go to Japan and learn the truth themselves. Shortly thereafter, they embark on their mission to the land of the rising sun, where in their search for Ferreira they will minister to the covert Christian communities, evade the local authorities hunting for priests, and ultimately have their faith tested in way they cannot imagine.
That test of faith is primarily shown through Rodrigues’ perspective, and the letters he sends back to his superior ask one of the questions at the heart of Endo’s novel: where is God in the midst of terrible suffering and isolation? As Garfield narrates the letters via voiceover, it begins to appear he is not only addressing them to his superior, but also to God. Notably, as Peter T. Chattaway said at Arts & Faith, when Rodrigues finally hears the voice of Christ, it sounds very much like that voice is provided by Ciarán Hinds.
As I suppose should be expected, there have been Christian viewers balking at the outcome of Rodrigues’ test of faith in Silence. However, even though the film is slightly less ambiguous than the book regarding that outcome, it is anything but a celebration of Rodrigues’ act. While the test itself may seem trivial to a non-Christian – stepping on a fumie (an image of Christ to be trampled to prove one does not hold the image as sacred, and is therefore not Christian), the following consequences for a priest who did so would be that he was then be paraded as an example to make other Christians lose their faith.
Naturally, why any priest would denounce his faith, or anyone with strong core beliefs would renounce them, is a question that should challenge viewers of any religious background, forcing them to ask when and why they would abandon their principle, identifying beliefs, if ever. In the case of Silence, it must be noted that the Japanese inquisitors were exceptionally cruel in their method of torture. As Steven D. Greydanus observed in his review:
“‘Smite the shepherd,’ wrote the prophet Zechariah, ‘and the sheep will be scattered.’ Not only have the Japanese inquisitors learned this lesson, they’ve also learned an insidious inverse principle: To break the shepherd, smite the sheep.”
As the grand inquisitor Inoue (an outstanding Issei Ogata) casually mentions to Rodrigues, initially the Japanese officials made the mistake of torturing priests, but that only strengthened their resolve, since many of them envisioned a glorious martyr’s death. However, forcing the priests to watch helplessly as other Christians were tortured produced the desired results.
The desire to be a martyr is universal, and it affects people of all religious backgrounds, or even none at all, as a way to validate the righteousness of their cause. At one point a Japanese translator (Tadanobu Asano) assigned to assist Rodrigues remarks in Japanese that Rodrigues is as arrogant as all the other Jesuits, and he will fall like all of them did. That translator later states an even greater tragic irony regarding the priests who apostatize: they came to Japan for the fame and glory of missionary work, and they receive that fame as apostate priests.
Arrogance is certainly a flaw of Rodrigues’, but how much it plays into his final decision is debatable. What is not debatable is that regardless of the rightness or wrongness of Rodrigues’ climactic act, God is right there suffering alongside him.
As Rodrigues, Garfield conveys the moral certainty of the self-righteous when things are easy, and his shift to a tormented and confused soul in the midst of suffering is flawless as each confrontation with the inquisitors breaks his spirit a little more. As the Chief Inquisitor Inoue, Issei Ogata is perfect as he fluctuates between geniality and menace with a comic air of disliking the whole unnecessary but harmless procedure. Adam Driver captures the firm resolve and strictness of Garupe; and as Ferreira, Neeson’s portrayal of a tortured, conflicted soul is effortlessly conveyed through his facial expressions and halting line delivery.
Scorsese himself is at the top of his game. For the first half of the film, he creates an immersive Japanese landscape while demonstrating his affinity for the novel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is gorgeous and inviting, but at the same time slightly formidable and intimidating, much like the Japanese culture itself. The use of God point-of-view shots happens at crucial moments along Rodrigues’ journey, so the audience never forgets that God is not silent, even if He appears to be.
During the second half of the film, Scorsese’s prowess as a filmmaker is at the forefront. Each confrontation between Rodrigues and the Japanese is staged with increased tension, interjected with moments of dry humor and unexpected violence, which is as tragic and shocking as it should be. Scorsese may continue his habit of extending films beyond their natural ending point, but the final shot he crafts is so powerful, I’m easily inclined to forgive him for ten extra minutes of runtime.
In addition to the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering, there is another question which has haunted me ever since I first viewed Silence. That is: which character are we supposed to identify with? I believe the answer to that is not the protagonist.
At one point, Rodrigues is chided that he likes to compare his suffering to Jesus’ in the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are countless others who are suffering even more, and they don’t have the arrogance to compare themselves to Christ. It’s a damning line, and one that’s hard to forget, because as I said above, many Christians like to envision themselves as martyrs and see their own sufferings as making them Christ-like. While it’s unquestionably true that we can and should offer our sufferings to God, it’s also true that we make the same mistakes and trample on His mercy again and again. With that in mind, the character from Silence all of us probably have the most in common with is the dirty, cowardly everyman Kichijiro.
Played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, Kichijiro is a thorn in Fr. Rodrigues’ side, a Judas to his Christ. Throughout the film Rodrigues reflects on Christ’s words to Judas: “What you will do, do quickly.” However, as in the novel, Rodrigues begins to question whether that line was spoken in anger or in love. The answer in the film is hinted at earlier than in the novel, but the final affirmation of it occurs at the same powerful moment.
After wrestling with this film for three weeks, what I ultimately take away from it is that it’s a movie about love. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter shortly before his execution, “Finally, it’s not a matter of reason…finally, it’s a matter of love.” Regardless of whether one interprets Rodrigues’ final action as an act of love or an act of betrayal or both, what the film makes unmistakably clear is God’s love for us, that He was born into this world to demonstrate that love, and it never abandons us, even when we abandon Him as many times as Kichijiro apostatizes, which may to our limited understanding appear unreasonable.
To quote my friend Joshua Wilson:
“To identify with Kichijiro means to admit that we commit the same failings again and again. But Rodrigues scorned him and looked down on his weakness. Ultimately that was where he failed to identify with Christ, who comes to us in our weakness and only when he himself had been broken of that pride could he find where Jesus’ voice was in the silence.”
Pride certainly led to Rodrigues’ downfall, but that downfall was also his moment of salvation when he truly learned how to love a wretched, broken, ugly human being which so many of us inherently despise – as Rodrigues himself did for much of the film, when he begrudgingly heard Kichijiro’s repeated confessions.
For a film which is itself an act of love for Endo’s literary masterpiece on Scorsese’s part, not only did Silence shed new light for me on a powerful text, it also provided a stunning realization of Christ’s love for all of us, even when we abandon Him, a love we often only encounter in the silence.
Personal recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Spiritually ambiguous themes, non-graphic but intense scenes of torture and violence. MPAA Rating: R
Suggested Audience: Mature teens and up.
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt.
Jackie is an incredible film in absolutely every possible sense of the word. I don’t deny the accuracy of any of the criticisms leveled against Jackie; it’s bizarrely and haphazardly edited, there are a glut of close-ups and eye-level point-of-view shots, the notable lack of establishing shots makes it impossible to fully appreciate where or when a scene is occurring, the shot reverse-shot editing becomes predictable quickly, which makes long takes stand out like a sore thumb. And yet, in spite of all that, or maybe because of it, Jackie is one of the most powerful explorations and portrayals of grief that I’ve seen all year. (I haven’t seen A Monster Calls yet.)
At the center of the film is Natalie Portman’s powerhouse performance as the grieving widow of JFK. And her elegance, attention to etiquette, and most importantly, her heartbreak come through in every scene. As the film cuts from the funeral, to an interview with the press, to breaking the news to her children, to recreated archival footage, to an exchange with a priest, to the assassination itself, often quite randomly, Portman is an anchoring presence. The nonlinear jumping from event to event heightens the feeling of grief as it underscores the lack of consistency and logic which people in a state of shock and devastation go through.
Surrounding and supporting Jackie are Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), whose performances fade into the background until Jackie needs them most and they emerge and stand forefront with her.
As Jackie deals with the process of grief, one moment she will be clutching her Catholic faith as a way to comfort her children, and a few scenes later she will be bitterly complaining to her priest (John Hurt) that God seems cruel. It’s a natural fluctuation for anyone who undergoes trauma, and Portman captures it effortlessly. The priest’s ultimate impartial response defies any conventional script writing logic, but like all the other unusual choices in the film, it works. He tells her even when it seems as if we would be better off dead, God gives us enough grace to get through each day, and even if it seems like too little, it will be enough.
That grace manifests itself in Jackie’s concern for her children, her attention to the details of her husband’s funeral, her love of history, the comfort from Bobby, and most notably in the musical Camelot which she and her husband famously loved. The film’s choice to focus on the title song from that musical and the glory of “one brief shining moment” adds even more poignancy to the film. Regardless of whether each viewer interprets that “brief shining moment” as the Kennedy legacy or simply the love of a wife and mother for her husband and kids, random details like that which comprise most of the film make Jackie absolutely stunning, especially for the way it overcomes and capitalizes on its sloppy, unconventional choices.
I confess, I have often grown tired of listening to baby boomers wax poetic about the Kennedys, but this raw portrayal of grief makes empathizing with them seem natural as it reveals broken human beings at the center of a tragedy who must maintain appearances for the press and cameras. Jackie’s calm public expressions of sorrow, contrasted with her cries of anguish in private, is a beautiful and sorrowful reminder of how messy grief is for everyone. Jackie wonders several times whether the “brief shining moment” she and her husband had will last, and that question, along with the dignity and grace with which she conducts herself, makes the sense of tragedy sting all the more for the viewer, especially when one contrasts her demeanor with recent events that left many Americans grieving.
As I said at the beginning, by every normal standard, this film is a mess and should be a disaster, but the rawness that permeates the film astonishingly works in its favor to make the exploration of grief all the more powerful, haunting, and devastating.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory: A brief but explicit shot of JFK’s assassination and the aftermath, infrequent rough language, and fleeting discussion of infidelities. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.
This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.
A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.
As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.
The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.
Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.
Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.
Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.
Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.
The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures. Not rated
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Year of Release: 2015 Directed by Mika Kaurismäki. Starring Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant, and Patrick Bauchau.
The life of Queen Kristina of Sweden is a fascinating enough topic to make several different films. Mika Kaurismäki’s The Girl King successfully limits its scope to two aspects of her life, but at the same time it seems to be torn between which of the two is the focus of the story. The film is framed by scenes which underscore Kristina’s affinity for the Catholic faith to the dismay of the Lutheran Swedish court, but the majority of the middle of the film is much more interested in her illicit lesbian affair with one of her ladies in waiting.
To the film’s credit it merges those two aspects of Kristina’s life more successfully than one might expect by emphasizing Kristina’s “curious” nature which leads her to be dissatisfied with Luther’s strict theology and interested in fulfilling her unorthodox desires. However, the double meaning of curious (for knowledge and regarding sexuality) becomes laboriously overstated and repetitive as the members of Kristina’s court and the French (read: Catholic) ambassadors say, “The queen is curious,” whenever she expresses interest in something outside of accepted norms. In other words, the word is used to the point of exhaustion.
I actually think the idea of a lesbian affair leading someone to become Catholic is fascinating, and it emphasizes the main mission of the Church: to meet all sinners where they are and bring them into the fullness of truth. Here, yet again, I found the film’s handling of the idea to be more interesting in theory than in execution. The French ambassador, eager to strike a blow against Lutheranism, tells Kristina that becoming Catholic would enable her to continue fulfilling her lesbian desires (in the seventeenth century, I seriously doubt anyone of any faith would say that). Rene Descartes (Kristina’s favorite philosopher) then says that those desires are not Christian, but further exploring the implication of those lines seems to be outside the film’s interest.
I am aware that for everything that I’ve complimented I have then criticized it, which might be making the film sound worse than it is. Director Mika Kaurismäki keeps the film thoroughly watchable through his skilled framing which gives a sense of the austere nature of the Swedish court as well as Kristina’s thirst for knowledge. An early shot of the young queen being given a physical examination in front of the entire court of men clearly establishes the sexism and secondary role of women which Kristina will challenge. The set design also convincingly portrays seventeenth century Sweden both in the palace interior and winter countryside.
However, I once again am going to turn around and critique the film. As skillful as the camera work is, the script is weak, with lines of dialogue either painfully on the nose or clichéd ideas from freshman philosophy. It does not help that some of the delivery is very stilted, but that may be because I watched the English version instead of the Swedish version, and it seemed that English was not a first language for a couple of the actors, notably Malin Buska who plays Kristina.
The Girl King is not a bad film. It’s a fascinating one in which it’s easy to see the makings of a great film from the story of Queen Kristina, a legacy this film touches upon, but does not live up to.
Content Advisory: Brief nudity, depiction of a lesbian affair, a threat of rape, an off-screen abortion, medical bloodletting and surgery — nothing particularly graphic.
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: C+