Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Silence & The Rigors of Witness

Well, I finally watched Scorcese's Silence.  So, as promised earlier, here is the second installment of reflections.

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Adam Driver (Garupe) and Andrew Garfield (Rodrigues) in Silence; photo from AZ Central

First, visually it's a wonderful, lush movie.  

Rodrigo Prieto deserves all the praise he's received for his cinematography.  Sweeping vistas, crashing surf, nuanced colors and lighting--they're all here.  It makes sense that a "Catholic" movie would appear visually attractive.  We have St. Peter's Basilica, the pomp and ritual of the Mass everywhere, every day.  So a movie about Catholics should follow suit, and Silence does not disappoint.  For example, the starkly difficult choice Rodrigues faces are offset by several shots where fog and/or mist obscure the view.  The issues are not clear, the notion of Japan as a swamp where foreign faiths go to die, are embodied by the swirling mists in and out of which the characters move.

On this note, the cinematography's beauty stems from scenes shot up and across--valleys, ocean beaches, steamy rainforests, etc.  Part of the movie's difficult subject gets embodied, though, by the shots downward.  Mucky, sticky, omnipresent mud grounds the movie.  (A hint of this comes from the YouTube icon linked below.)  So, head in the cloud and feet stuck firmly in a foot of gluey mud--this is the movie Silence.

Which is right where any authentically Catholic movie about Japanese missions should be.

Second, it is a perplexing and tempting movie.

Marta Figlerowicz's review in the Los Angeles Review of Books wonderfully deconstructs the movie but seems to forget that it is, after all, a movie about Jesuit priests in Japan.  It's not going to feature the gender-balanced focus many modern minds desire.  Furthermore, even accounting for Scorcese's perspective (she mentions similarities to other Scorcese greats), Endo's novel doesn't provide the narrative from which to expand such desired characters.  Figlerowicz's secularism blinds her to the larger spiritual questions at stake.  Thus, she sees Catholic material...and concludes it's motivated by guilt. Working with this but concluding differently, Alexei Sargeant writes:
Most of us are more like Rodrigues, or at least like Scorsese. We can’t muster any glee at our transgressions, but we find ways to justify them as necessary. And so we want to read Rodrigues not as an apostate but as a new kind of saint. The truest faith might be denial of faith, we solemnly equivocate.
Rodrigues in his apostasy must be some grand and tragic figure, because he so resembles us. The internal inquisitor in each of us demands that every holy thing be trampled. Our response to an intuition of sacredness is to devise outlandish hypotheticals where that sacred must be profaned. Then we make art about that profanation, and it receives accolades from critics and audiences—witness the popular television show 24, about a patriotic (but conflicted) torturer whose violations of human dignity always turn out to be necessary for the safety of our country. Or the 2005 Best Picture–winner Million Dollar Baby, in which a paternal (but conflicted) coach mercifully euthanizes his crippled boxing protégée. This is the tribute we moderns pay to sanctity: We wince as we violate it again and again and again.
Read all of Sargeant's post here.

This is where Bishop Robert Barron's comments demonstrate significant traction.  As mentioned in my first installment, Bishop Barron takes issue with book and movie regarding the celebration of Rodrigues' comfortable post-apostasy life.  "Look, isn't that neat?  He's still a Christian at the end."

Barron is right--that's not supposed to be the point.  American life loves religion--so long as you keep it to yourself.  This is precisely what Father Rodrigues, post-apostasy, does in the movie.

Matt Walsh, never one to hold his tongue or engage in half-measures, retweeted Bishop Barron and proclaimed the movie thoroughly anti-Christian.  This seems like a Catholic version of those "alternative facts" circulating these days.  While the goals or perspective of his novels might be doubted, Endo's Catholicism cannot.  Converting to Christianity before the Second World War (which, to me, seems to involve the possibility of appearing treasonous to the wartime Japanese), Endo wrestled with the conflict between his Japanese and newly acquired Christian identities.  He spent time in France post-war, only to encounter there opposition because of his obvious ethnic difference.  So, too Christian for Japan and too Japanese for Christian Europe.  It would make sense that a novelist shaped by such experiences might produce like Silence that reflects on, oh I don't know, the relationship between Japan and Christianity.  Hence Ferreira's line "Japan is a swamp where nothing grows" reflects Endo's assessment of his own spiritual journey.  It does not seem to mean to be taken literally--i.e., that the Christian missions were doomed from the beginning.

So Walsh brings a meat cleaver when we really need a scalpel to dissect the movie's beliefs and motivations.  And do not mistake my point:  I disagree with Walsh in his interpretation, not with his body of work.  His omnipresent social media skills have served the Catholic blogosphere quite well.

As noted above, some of the hostility Barron, Walsh, and the others harbor comes from Rodrigues' post-apostasy life. He spends it in relative comfort, supported by the Japanese authorities in exchange for routine restatements of apostasy (he's shown stepping firmly on the fumie as part of a routine 'check-up' visit) and, with Ferreira, inspecting European good for contraband Christian elements.  Unlike the book, Scorcese includes a brief glimpse where Rodrigues catches some hidden Christian symbolism that Ferreira himself overlooked.  In other words, Scorcese's movies embellishes Rodrigues' apostate fervor beyond anything in Endo's novel.  Furthermore, Scorcese does not portray Rodrigues silently asserting his faith as Endo's novel clearly does.

Perhaps some of this dis-ease with the fallen Rodrigues is that he never appears to fight against what the Japanese overlords decide for him.  This is certainly true in Scorcese's movie, but it even appears in Endo's novel.  No covert ministry in Nagasaki. No attempts to send word back to his Jesuit superiors at Macau "Look, despite what you might have heard..." 

And, it seems worth noting, not a single reviewer--except here--has wrestled with what they would do if faced with the same situation as Rodrigues.  Would you trample?  Earlier in the movie Rodrigues encourages Garupe as they separate "Stay alive!", clearly an allusion to the impending crisis. Garupe, of course, does not, swimming out in a doomed attempt to save three Christians drowned in the ocean. Rodrigues lives, but what kind of life?  Endo depicts the fallen priest as trapped and humilated, but resigned;  Scorcese has, as noted, him much more actively apostate.  (I mean, come on--if you're the one charged with finding smuggled Christian paraphernalia, then you have the power to let some/most/all through.)  Thus Meg Hunter-Kilmer poses a great question:

Who would you rather be on Judgment Day: 

Rodrigues or Kichijiro?

Reading back through the novel after seeing the movie, I wonder perhaps if Kichijiro, the many-times-fallen-many-times-forgiven Japanese Christian, is Endo himself, and thus we the audience.  Hunter-Kilmer attends to Rodrigues' pride as the key to his apostasy, an event his Japanese guards, experienced as they are with torturing Christians, foresee before Rodrigues himself.  But this is our human condition:  created by God and charged with following Him, we continually fall short.  Christ sanctifies the Church, not its human membership--THANK GOD! (Catechism #827) Thus Kichijiro, as despicable as he is, stands in for our own inability to rise above ourselves.  We struggle against ourselves. We need God's help in Christ to do so. This shouldn't make us feel good, but it is sobering and there is hope that maybe we get our witness right.  After all, Silence begins with the priests and the Japanese Christians martyred at the hot springs...and ends with Kichijiro being caught again with a Christian locket necklace--and he is led off, presumably to martyrdom.

Sareant concludes: "The religion of Silence fascinates moderns because it can be made to encapsulate the modern approach to the sacred. They can only revere it by desecrating it. They can only kiss it in betrayal. They can only bear to touch it with the soles of their feet."  Perhaps, but with Kichijiro and Endo's novel we also possess the witness needed to move from imitating Rodrigues to Kichijiro to the Japanese martyrs themselves (whom Endo clearly revered) and ultimately Christ Himself.

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