Posts Tagged tragedy

Silence

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.

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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.

mv5by2u4mzy2zgmtmwnimc00mjbkltlmm2etmmjmy2vlnzlhmtk5l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjcwnzu2nte-_v1_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.

mv5byzzmodk5ztatztg5mi00y2jmltkyztmtytzizwuznguxywy4l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynju1mjq1mdu-_v1_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.

mv5bowvjzmviymqtzgvjmy00ztdklwexyzityzkwmjayngfhmtywxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjk0mzk3nta-_v1_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.

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The Witch

Directed by Robert Eggers.    Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.

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Everyone should see The Witch.

Okay. That’s a hyperbolic opening sentence which neither takes into account differences of tastes and sensibilities nor describes what makes The Witch a compelling, thought provoking viewing experience vastly different from most other films. Of course not everyone should see The Witch, but anyone who appreciates thoughtful, challenging works of art which wrestle with faith based questions should give this film a chance.

The Witch is a powerful work of art about faith gone badly wrong and the horrific consequences thereof. While those consequences unquestionably make The Witch a horror film, it’s hardly one I would call scary. Rather, the creepy and unnerving atmosphere, achieved through a perfect blend of fantasy and tragedy, gives the themes of religion, fundamentalism, and destruction of the family a fresh vitality. In other words, both horror aficionados and those who rigidly eschew horror films should throw out any expectations and allow The Witch to unfold in its unusual and spectacular manner.

The story itself is fairly simple: a Puritan family is exiled from their colonial village because the father has been challenging the ways of the towns’ elders, whom he claims are heretics. After they set up their farm on the outskirts of the woods, the infant disappears one day while the oldest is playing peek-a-boo with him. Not long after that, increasingly unusual events begin to plague the family, creating rifts between all the relationships: siblings, spouses, and parents and children.

With its masterful recreation of superstitious, seventeenth century, colonial New England, The Witch transports its audience to an era long since passed where characters behave in ways that make little sense by modern standards. Regrettably, several screenings have had a few audience members’ laughing in shock because they are unable to accept the perspective of characters whose mentality is completely foreign to twenty-first century America. However, the unapologetic immersion in seventeenth century Puritan New England by writer/director Robert Eggers is what makes The Witch so thoroughly engrossing.

Eggers’ script is full of archaic language which would be right at home in a Shakespeare play, and his dialogue frequently focuses on sin and the fear that one might die in sin and thus go to hell. That fear naturally applies to children and infants, and it is a pressing concern for the family, especially young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who cannot comprehend what his baby brother did to deserve to go to hell. While his father (Ralph Ineson) acknowledges God’s mercy as a possibility, the strict sect of Puritanism to which the family adheres places an extreme focus on sin and damnation, almost to the point that sin is greater than God’s mercy, a warped perspective which will feature prominently later in the film.

At the center of the story is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of becoming a woman, suffering from guilt for losing her infant brother while she was playing peek-a-boo, her mother’s scapegoat for anything that goes wrong on the farm, and increasingly uncertain about the rigid fundamentalism of her faith. The opening shot of her silently staring wide-eyed into the camera portrays a young girl who sees her family’s future jeopardized as her father is banished from the village community. That young girl gradually becomes more assertive through the course of the film, but since her family and religion both devalue her, her journey to adulthood hardly follows a normal trajectory. The two other scenes when she stares directly into the camera frame her mental and spiritual journey. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the film unnervingly captures a very troubled and lonely soul.

Overshadowing Thomasin’s coming of age and the family grief is the omnipresent threat of a witch in the woods that border the farm. It goes without saying that Thomasin and her family believe in witchcraft, and a very early scene shows the audience the witch. However, the overarching question is whether or not the witch is really a threat or if there is another demonic presence haunting this family. The answers are skillfully suggested throughout, particularly in an early tracking shot which distorts its subject in a brilliant fashion. The final answer will seem perfectly natural to viewers who have bought into the characters and world on display. For those who haven’t, the denouement will probably be the biggest head scratcher in the film. Either way, it pays off in spades.

As a director, Eggers brilliantly chooses what to show and what not to show. He times the cuts to leave just enough room for doubt so that the tragic, fantastic atmosphere is greatly heightened. He places Mark Korven’s visceral, textural score against Jarin Blaschke’s bleak cinematography so that the world of the film is immersive. Finally, his Bergmanesque wrestling with faith, doubt, and isolation suggests a cross between Winter Light and Hour of the Wolf.

It’s very rare to see a film that demands to be seen multiple times to fully digest it. With The Witch, first time feature film director Robert Eggers has crafted such a film.

 

Content Advisory: Fleeting depictions of disturbing satanic rituals, some gruesome violence, shadowy nudity, and horrific unusual deaths.   MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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Macbeth

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Justin Kurzel. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis.

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When I heard there was a new adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, my excitement knew no bounds. Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, it is highly cinematic, Cotillard and Fassbender are great actors, and the news that it would be an old school adaptation set in the 11th century were all highly encouraging.

This was the biggest cinematic disappointment I have ever experienced. The only quasi-redeeming aspect was Cotillard’s performance as Lady Macbeth, and even she could not save the disaster that was the rest of this movie.

First of all, this is not adapted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; it’s adapted from the Sparknotes version of Macbeth. Several crucial scenes are missing (the conclusion of Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy, all of “Double double toil and trouble,” the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son, and that’s just for starters .) Considering the film is still two hours (roughly the length of the play), the missing scenes are replaced with new lines by the screenwriters quickly filling in any information that is needed, and two LONG battle sequences that frame both ends of the film, both of which are shot and jarringly edited with absurd slow-motion video game like sequences which look terrible. If watching someone else play a video game is your idea of a good movie then maybe you will appreciate this.

So much of Shakespeare’s play is missing that for this Shakespeare lover a suitable analogy would be watching a film adaptation of the Gospels which removes “The Baptism in the Jordan,” “The Sermon on the Mount,” and “The Agony in the Garden.” Or a film of Les Miserables which cuts “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.”

Speaking of Les Miserables, many people complained (to some degree deservedly) about Hooper’s sloppy editing and camera work, but compared to this, Hooper looks like Orson Welles. Justin Kurzel relies on an overabundance of close-ups, and his idea of quick pacing is to extremely over edit — I’d be hard pressed to name a single shot that lasts longer than 5 seconds. (I think there were two or three, but I couldn’t swear to it.)

For the hype about setting this in the 11th century, the Gothic architecture for the castle looked more 14th or 15th century to me.

As I said, Cotillard is good, but it’s hard to tell because the camera is constantly interrupting scenes by jumping to new shots. Kurzel also doesn’t allow her to become as unhinged as she needs to. She merely becomes wracked with guilt; she never loses her mind. I don’t have any idea what Fassbender was doing. He plays Macbeth as a cipher, which I thought was grossly inappropriate, and he has no progression or descent into evil at all. He recites the lines about Macbeth’s guilt and hesitation, but then carries out the murder of Duncan without any hesitation, and he’s not even shaken by having done the deed. The portrayal of the Macbeths ruined the opposite character arcs that the two are supposed to have as they both lose their minds in different ways.

In fairness, I will add that it probably did not help that I watched the very, very good Polanski adaptation for the first time a few weeks ago.

 

Content Advisory: Much intense, highly stylized battlefield violence, gruesome and gory images, and a brief non-graphic sex scene.                           MPAA Rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: D+

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Don’t Look Now

A fantastic film newly released by the Criterion Collection. I am very grateful that Ken Morefield gave me the opportunity to write it up.

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The Virgin Spring

Year of Release: 1960     Directed by Ingmar Bergman.     Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson.

Ingmar Bergman has a well deserved reputation as not only one of Sweden’s greatest directors, but one of the greatest directors period. He also has a reputation of being a “difficult” director whose films, especially the later ones, are artsy and bleak, characterized by dreamlike narratives and themes of existential doubt. While faith and mortality play an important role in The Virgin Spring, the film is unique among Bergman’s output, not only because it is one of his few films for which he did not write the screenplay.

The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman’s most straightforward films with a completely linear narrative taken from a 13th Century poem, no hallucinations or dream sequences, no playing with the viewer’s perception of reality, and no crisis of faith or characters plagued by doubt. The reason for the first three is that Bergman clearly wanted the film to unfold like a fable, or a minstrel’s tale, which it does hauntingly and brilliantly. The reason for the last choice is simple, Bergman set the film in 13th Century Sweden, where a strong faith was taken for granted, and using that lack of doubt as a backdrop, Bergman explores naïveté, vengeance, sorrow, and contrition.

The religious nature of all the characters also makes the tragedy and horror of the story felt much more profoundly. Bergman frames the film with the same character kneeling down and leaning forward in prayer. The first time she is invoking Odin to punish another woman with whom she is angry. The second time is out of a feeling of guilt and horror, witnessing the results of the terrible tragedy that has occurred. The villains are also slightly more complex than simple menacing thugs. They are relieved when they realize their crime will not jeopardize the celebration of the Mass; the youngest of them becomes unable to eat because he is so disturbed by what he witnessed. While the film never suggests sympathizing with the criminals (nor does it need to), when it reverses their position from antagonists to victims, it is taken for granted that the next crime will be equally brutal. To reinforce the comparison, both crimes end with a senseless death. Under Bergman’s meticulous pacing, the reversal occurs just after the halfway mark, which was when the first crime occurred and set the stage for the second.

Birgitta Pettersson perfectly captures the correct balance of mischievous, naive, and compassionate as the titular virgin Karin. As her father and lord of a large castle, Max von Sydow is fittingly stoic and authoritative. The scenes where he breaks down are shot with him facing away from the camera, as if he does not want anyone to see him broken and unsure. Even with his back to the camera, von Sydow powerfully conveys the sorrow he is suffering.

This was only second film Bergman shot with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the first being Sawdust and Tinsel seven years earlier. The Swedish countryside looks absolutely stunning, and the stark black and white camera work is as haunting, chilling, and poetic as the tale it tells.

 

Content Advisory: Depiction of rape, several murders, and shadowy nudity – nothing particularly graphic                        Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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