Tuesday, April 18, 2017

SILENCE (2016) – Film Review

Rarely has a director of Martin Scorsese’s caliber tackled such weighty religious themes head-on with such heartfelt passion. As such, Silence is not an insignificant film. The controversial story has, unsurprisingly, met with a wide variety of responses; it has been called “one of the finest religious movies ever made,” as well as an egregious “subversion of the Christian faith.”

Since the movie came out last year, most everyone has had his or her say. I’m not sure if anything new can be added to the voices that have already spoken. Still, I didn’t get a chance to see Silence until recently, and, for what it’s worth, still wanted to write down my thoughts. [Insert joke about me not wanting to remain silent about Silence.]

WARNING: There is no way to deal with the thematic elements of this film without revealing major spoilers. In fact, I’m going to enter Spoiler Land and set up camp there. I might even start a fire and cook some S’mores. Yes, this could get sticky.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): +8/-8, for a total of 0 out of 10

In this section of a movie review, I typically deal with material that some might find offensive or problematic. In Silence, there is definitely violence involved in the torture of Japanese villagers—although, with the exception of one swift beheading, there is very little blood or gore involved.

The most controversial element of the film is how it handles the topic of apostasy. Regarding that in particular, it seems fairly obvious that Scorsese’s intentions are not to undermine the Christian faith. The ministry of the gospel is taken seriously, as are sacrifices made by both Japanese and European characters in the story. The hostility toward Christianity in the film is shown for what it is: evil. At the end, the film is even explicitly dedicated to “Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

To quote Steven D. Greydanus in his review of another controversial Scorsese film, “we must not be too quick to judge any particular portrait of Christ [or His people] merely because it challenges our expectations or makes us uncomfortable.” This sentiment applies to Silence as well. The movie makes us uncomfortable in different ways—some good (hence, the positive content rating), and some bad (hence, the negative—as well as the overall—content rating). I will explore the misfires in-depth in the final section of this review.

ATRISTRY (A): 8 out of 10

Artistically speaking, there is little to critique. Silence is obviously a labor of love by a gifted filmmaker. It received an Oscar nomination for cinematography (and rightly so), but I think it deserves more—including, at the very least, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Liam Neeson. Even though Neeson’s role is more of a glorified cameo, his performance as a compromised priest is infused with a gravitas that arrests the viewer’s attention. He is, for different reasons, both the best and the worst part about the movie. (I’ll explain the “worst part” in more detail in just a minute.)
                                    
If more faith-based films displayed this level of artistry, both in front of and behind the camera, the world would be a better place. Alas and alack, that is not the case. In comparison with Silence, the common faith-based film is utterly repugnant and artless—what one might call enterdreckment.

I was surprised, however, by just how many continuity errors there are in Silence. I have never noticed so many instances in one movie before. They’re nothing to derail the film, but they do stick out like…well, like a Caucasian priest in a Japanese village.

PREFERENCE (P): 5 out of 10

In some scenes, Silence paints a fairly cut-and-dried picture of apostasy and martyrdom—especially when the malicious government officials first appear on the scene. They command a group of villagers to stamp on a fumie—softly, if necessary. They are told it is “just a formality.” And yet when the villagers (including some who are Christians) place their foot on the fumie, they do so with such little conviction that the government authorities demand a further display of apostasy: the villagers must spit on an image of the cross.

Why give a more harsh command if all they are looking for is “just a formality”? Because they know what they are asking for is not a mere formality. By forsaking any profession of faith, Christians are forsaking faith itself. And when the Japanese believers are faced with a choice between denying their faith (by spitting on an image of Christ) and dying, they choose to die.

Anyone familiar with the storyline of Silence is aware that “cut and dried” is not an adequate description of the film as a whole. That is because additional variables are involved when the priests themselves experience persecution. Their moral dilemma is ghastly: renounce their faith publicly or watch as Japanese villagers are tortured in their place.

The movie climaxes when the main protagonist, Father Rodrigues, steps on a fumie himself. This act comes out of great anguish, and only after he has been hounded by Ferreira (Liam Neeson), his former mentor who himself has long since apostatized. Rather than arguing that it is “just a formality,” Ferreira proposes that stepping on the fumie would actually be a meritorious act to save innocent sufferers. “What would you do for them?” he asks. “Pray? And get what in return? Only more suffering. A suffering only you can end. Not God!” Ferreira even goes so far as to say, “To give up your faith is the most painful act of love.” In a moment of intense temptation, these are seductive words. The whole scene reminds me of Eve in the garden, or Christ in the desert, facing the cunning deception of a crafty enemy. The outcome promised is certainly attractive.

Based on other reviews I have read, some people see this moment in the film as a turning point for Rodrigues. His pride has become more and more apparent to the audience, up until the point where he caves in and apostatizes. This act shows him coming to the end of himself as he acknowledges his limitations. By stepping on the fumie, he begins the process of crawling out of the shell of his ethnocentrism, no longer seeing himself as the imperialist savior of the people of Japan. His apostasy is, ironically, a movement from pride to humility.

It is true that Rodrigues’ pride becomes more and more apparent as the movie progresses. It shows up in a small statement here and there. It is revealed in how he corrects the villagers in their pronunciation of the word “paradise” so that they use the proper—i.e., European—term. Later in the film, his pride becomes strikingly evident in how he reacts when coming face-to-face with the apostasy of Ferreira. Rodrigues is not broken over Ferreira’s compromises so much as he is condescendingly disgusted with them. His initial response to Ferreira reveals not godly sorrow over a wounded (at best) or lost (at worst) faith, but rather a haughty and worldly condemnation of another human being.

However, I do not see Rodrigues’ apostasy as a character arc from pride to humility. He is simply trading in one form of pride for another. Before, his pride revealed itself in a type of messiah complex: he had an inflated view of his perceptions and abilities in contrast with those of others. There was never a possibility in his mind that anyone other than him knew what was best. (One example is when he encourages a group of peasants to consider stomping on a fumie to avoid persecution, to which another priest, Father Garupe, rightly responds with correction.)

It is true that with his apostasy, Rodrigues’ confidence in himself is, in a sense, shattered. As a result, what’s on the surface changes, but what’s inside remains: pride. A pride that says it can renounce his faith to serve his neighbor so that he may maintain his faith in service to his neighbor. Rodrigues has decided to follow God and serve his fellow man on his own terms. His arc is destructive, not redemptive. To quote Steven D. Greydanus again, “Perhaps Silence is a true tragedy in the classical sense, in which a virtuous man is undone by a fatal flaw.”

Yes, the situation is complicated by the nature of the threat against Rodrigues and the other priests. They are not given a simple and straightforward choice between denying the faith and dying a martyr’s death; they are given the choice between denying the faith and watching others suffer torture at their expense. It is an especially harsh and sadistic burden forced on their shoulders. I do not wish to minimize the moral and psychological anguish this places on them. Were I in Rodrigues’ shoes, would I still stand firm? I can’t say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that there is actually a third option, and it is the option taken by Father Garupe. Rather than stand by as others are tortured in his stead, he rushes to the rescue with such passionate selflessness that he himself is also killed. It is not the glorious kind of death that Rodrigues would have wanted for himself, but it is a glorious death from an eternal perspective: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). In his death, Garupe avoids being counted among those who have “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29).

In stark contrast to Garupe’s final moments, Rodrigues’ final years are described in the movie with these words: “[he] never acknowledged the Christian God. Not by word or symbol. He never spoke of him and never prayed.”

The ultimate problem with Silence is not that it asks us to sympathize with Rodrigues’ temptations and failings. Such sympathy is warranted. The ultimate problem with Silence is that it leads the viewer to not only sympathize with Rodrigues’ apostasy, but also to legitimize it. For the rest of his life, Rodrigues is forced into repeated demonstrations of a denial of his faith. We are asked to consider that these demonstrations can be, as the Japanese officials claimed earlier on, just a formality.

Silence postulates that it is possible to live an innocuous Christian life, in which all public pretense of faith is stripped away. Whereas Christ condemned those who repeatedly blessed God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6), Scorsese asks us to at least consider approving of those who repeatedly curse God with their lips (or feet) but whose hearts clandestinely draw near. Such a prospect may seem attractive within our modern cultural milieu, but not within the framework of historical Christianity.

At times, Scorsese has crafted works of art that have ended up communicating something other than what he purposed. It appears that he did not set out to blaspheme Christ with The Last Temptation of Christ, but that ended up being the end result—a fact which even Roger Ebert (who loved the film) conceded. Scorsese did not attempt to glorify vice with The Wolf of Wall Street, but that ended up being an unintended consequence. Nuance and ambiguity gave way to inadvertent mixed messages.

Similarly, Silence does at times display nuance and ambiguity, but the denouement—including the final shot of the film—settles not for complexity so much as a cacophony of disjointed, and ultimately contradictory, sentiments. For these reasons, Silence unfortunately earns the lowest movie rating I have yet given.

CAP score: 43%

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why Compare the Filming of Sex Scenes to Sexual Assault?

It is near impossible to adequately address a controversial topic in one blog post. Take one (fairly) recent entry: A Tale of Two Sexual Assaults on Jennifer Lawrence. There is much I could have said but didn’t. And by leaving many things unsaid, I inevitably left the door open for people to hear things I did not say.

Based on feedback I’ve received, I want to clarify and strengthen my argument by examining three items: 1) the underlying message of the movie Passengers, 2) the controversial language I chose, and 3) human agency—in particular, female agency.

Please be forewarned that the following material contains spoilers for the movie Passengers.

THE MESSAGE OF PASSENGERS

In a work of art, the message and/or worldview of the artist(s) is shown not just in the story that is being told, but in the way the story is being told. The storyteller’s method is part of the message. And the general consensus among critics is that sexual exploitation is the inescapable thematic core of Passengers.

Several reviews have pointed out how the storyline works to dehumanize and objectify Aurora (Lawrence’s character). For example, Wendy Ide writes that the whole story is “predicated on a single act of staggering selfishness” in which Jim, the main character, is “the perv who practically [grinds] himself against a woman’s sleep pod before stealing her life to be his chosen playmate.” Katie Walsh concurs, saying the movie focuses on “sexy space fun times, turning Jim’s morally reprehensible choice into a meet cute.”

The entire narrative, says Robert Abele, is stained by “issues of male captivity fantasy and victimization.” He then adds, “It doesn’t help that [Director] Tyldum frequently shoots Lawrence with an almost fetishistic interest in her curves, to the point that even after the cat’s out of the bag — and Lawrence nails Aurora’s initial distress and rage — he cuts from her screaming ‘You took my life!’ to an ogling shot of her swimming in a two-piece.”

Like the filming of the movie itself, the storyline of Passengers reveals a dangerous subculture at work: one in which women are viewed as sex objects, existing primarily for the pleasure of men. In the words of film critic Steven D. Greydanus:

[There is a] male cultural assumption that women are there for male enjoyment and that men have a right to enjoy them. It’s a reality that women face every day. PASSENGERS is ultimately, in its own way, a reflection of this cultural assumption.

Mr. Greydanus is right. In the case of Passengers, this cultural assumption is evident on several fronts. It’s evident in the story the filmmakers decided to tell, in the way they treated their characters, and in the way they treated the actors who played those characters.

QUESTIONABLE LANGUAGE

Some readers took issue with my labeling of the sex scene as an assault. They thought the language was too strong, especially since Lawrence wasn’t actually raped. If we apply the word (or the idea of) “rape” to everything, it loses its meaning.

I sympathize with that position—and, to a certain extent, agree with it. In order to clarify the reason for my word choice, I’d like to point to the strong language many critics used in regards to the film itself. The references to rape are legion, even though the sex that takes place in the movie is not coerced. Aurora consents to, and even sometimes initiates, her trysts with Jim. Nevertheless, critics responded (rightfully, I think) to the set of circumstances leading to this “romantic” relationship as sexual assault. The sex is consensual, yes, but it involves manipulation. Such consent should not be construed as free.

Similarly, the filming of Jennifer Lawrence’s sex scene was indeed consensual. It also involved societal manipulation, evidenced in large part by the amount of fear, guilt, and anguish Lawrence experienced during and after the shoot. In the face of such cultural duress, her consent should not be construed as free.
                               
All things considered, I think my use of the term “sexual assault” is appropriate—as long as I make distinctions between an actual person-on-person assault and an assault a society makes on a group of people. And, as anyone knows from reading the blog post, I definitely made that distinction.

FEMALE AGENCY

Another critique I have received is that my position shows a disregard for female autonomy. By focusing on the experiences of actresses in particular, I am revealing sexist and misogynistic view of women, as if they are no better at dealing with pressure than children.

I am grateful for this critique. That someone could click away from my blog thinking such things is concerning. I plan on dealing with this criticism more fully in the future. For now, let me give a short response.

My emphasis on the cultural constraints of actors is not meant to imply that actors (and especially women) in these situations are left without the reality or even the possibility of moral agency. I have focused much attention on our culture as a whole because I believe it is a critical factor.

Consider an illustration from a completely separate topic: American obesity. One might ask why we don’t focus more time on issues of autonomy and personal responsibility, rather than on societal issues like portion sizes, aggressive marketing techniques, the prevalence of junk food, and the abundance of sedentary entertainment. The answer is that zeroing in on personal responsibility while ignoring cultural trends is a shortsighted approach to the problem.

So it is, I believe, with the filming of sex scenes in modern entertainment, whether such entertainment is obviously and blatantly pornographic, or subtly and artistically pornographic. In short, although female agency is indeed a factor, it is not the only factor. And I am choosing to draw attention to factors that we as an audience can actually affect.

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION

I greatly appreciate the feedback I have received from readers, both positive and negative. It helps me pause and consider where I might be wrong. It also helps me refine my language and/or message so that I can more successfully and clearly communicate what I believe in the future.

And even if, at the conclusion of this blog post, you still disagree with me, I hope that you can at least better understand and appreciate my intentions. In any case, thank you for contributing to this conversation.

photo credit: jenlawfilms via flickr, CC

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Indecency of Simply Ignoring Indecent Content

Over the past few years, I’ve posted numerous articles about sex and nudity in films and television. I am grateful for the opportunity to compile material from several of these posts into a new article for Reformed Perspective Magazine. The post went live last week, and it is entitled Here’s the problem with just closing your eyes during the sex scenes. This article is a good summary of some of my main points.

UPDATE: a PDF of the print edition is now available here.

photo credit: ATENCION: via flickr, CC