Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Manchester-by-the-Sea

Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)

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One of the more astonishing things about Martin Scorsese’s Silence is that it is not obviously his work. In other words, while Silence has been celebrated as a labor of love for Scorsese, there really isn’t much “scorseseing” in it — no Brooklyn accents, no “Gimme Shelter” (in fact, hardly any non-diegetic music at all), and limited use of freeze frame, tracking shots, and other quintessential Scorsese techniques. Indeed, it would be forgivable if one were to confuse Silence with the work of a Dreyer or a Bresson or even a Malick. It is a reserved, thoughtful, even aloof film, and therein lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Scorsese had wanted to make Silence since the late 1980s, when he first encountered the eponymous novel on which it is based. Penned by the great Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo, Silence [沈黙] met with critical acclaim upon its release in 1966, winning the Tanizaki Prize as a work of the “highest literary merit.” Since then, its stature has only increased, garnering a notable body of secondary literature and emerging as a “classic” of historical and religious fiction. Indeed, Scorsese’s film is the third cinematic adaptation of Endo’s novel: the noted Japanese auteur Masahiro Shinoda released a version in 1971, and Portuguese director João Grilo offered his own take in 1996. Hence, for all of the talk about Silence being a “passion project” for Scorsese, it is also true that his film falls in a long line of responses to Endo’s novel. This point is essential in understanding the film, lest one see Scorsese’s version as an independent work — say, an expression of his own pious yet pained relation to Catholicism or a bona fide contribution to films about “white saviors.” To whatever extent such perspectives are valid, it is far more accurate to say that Silence really isn’t about Scorsese at all. Qua director, he recedes into the background of the film, thereby implying that Endo’s story is sufficiently powerful on its own.

And what of that story? The plot is, indeed, simple enough. Set in the seventeenth century — several decades after the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 — Silence centers on a trio of Jesuit priests. The first is Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese missionary to Japan, rumored to have renounced his faith when Japanese authorities began to persecute Christians. Dismayed by Ferreira’s alleged apostasy, two of his young pupils — Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who intensively prepared for his role) and Fr. Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver, in a striking performance) — journey to Japan in order to rescue him. Yet, upon arriving in Japan, they encounter a situation even more desperate than they had imagined. The last remaining Christians in the land, almost uniformly fishermen and peasants, are forced to practice their faith in secret. What’s more, the shogunal authorities carry out periodic trials, where persons are required to repudiate Christianity in public, typically by stepping on an icon [fumi-e] of Jesus or of the Madonna and Child. Some Japanese Christians disavow their faith, but many do not, and they are tortured and often executed. Perhaps the most stunning example of this torment, both in the novel and in Scorsese’s adaptation, is the days-long process of crucifying Christians at sea:

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As the tide comes in, the water creeps up to the victims’ necks — and even higher; those who don’t drown are eventually done in by exposure and exhaustion. Scorsese, like Endo, depicts this event with judicious restraint: there is nothing glorious in such suffering, at least not recognizably so. Indeed, as the film continues, and as the persecution intensifies, doubts begin to gnaw at Rodrigues and Garupe. What are they supposed to do for the faithful? To leave Japan would be to abandon them, but to stay exposes them to danger. After all, the victims are not only dying in order to preserve their faith, but also to protect the last two priests in Japan. And yet, there is a bigger problem: why does God allow such hatred and oppression? If the suffering of the poor and the humble doesn’t incite God’s justice, what will? Is there even a God at all?

Ultimately — and without giving away too much — it is Rodrigues who is forced to wrestle with these questions most acutely. That Scorsese (again, like Endo) leaves his fate in doubt ensures that the story never becomes trite or grandiose. But he is making a theological point is as well. The English word “silence” comes from the Latin silere, which means “to be quiet or still.” Thus “silence” is not a making or a taking; it is a passio, a “suffering.” The one who is silent is one who relinquishes control.

It makes sense, then, to name a story about suffering Silence. But the suffering depicted in Silence is not just any suffering. It is, first and foremost, a suffering modeled after Jesus Christ, who remained silent under persecution (Mt 26:63) and finally was put to death on the cross. Endo’s novel makes this connection clear when Rodrigues is faced with the decision to step on the fumi-e: “Trample!” he hears Jesus say, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” In his abasement, Rodrigues comes to know the abased Christ far more intimately than he had before. He comes to know not only the humility of Jesus’ life, but also the humility of God’s patience with humanity — a patience that he, stripped of his identity and vocation, now needs in the utmost.

To be sure, the insights gained from suffering are often the most incisive, if also the most painful. And perhaps few things explain Christianity’s perseverance as well as its insistence that humility and suffering are virtues that teach us about, and lead us to, the divine. Both Endo and Scorsese seem to grasp this point well, both as Christians and as artists, though many in the media have seen it otherwise. Silence has been criticized for being too long, too boring, and, ironically, too quiet, and it has generally struggled during “awards season,” garnering but a single Oscar nomination. Some of these criticisms are fair. Silence lacks the dash and flair of Scorsese’s best work, and one senses that he let (!) his devotion to the subject matter govern his direction. But, in another sense, isn’t that the point?

I end with an anecdote: I saw Silence in Center City, Philadelphia in early January, roughly a week before its general release in the United States. The previous weekend I had seen Manchester by the Sea in a suburban theater; it was packed, and spectators were crying throughout the film. However, when the end credits began to roll, audience members quickly got up and made their way toward the exits.

Silence was different. Though the crowd was a bit smaller and less conspicuous than that of Manchester by the Sea, no one budged as the film came to a close. Moreover, there was hardly any talking; it was as quiet as a theater could be. I was surprised. My initial feeling was that Silence was a good, not great, Scorsese film. But as the audience’s contemplatio persisted, punctuated only by the nature sounds accompanying the end credits, it occurred to me that Scorsese’s film had met its objective. Silence was never about him or “awards season.” As with much religious art, it is meant to elicit self-reflection and to open up a space where God, known negatively through human impoverishment, might be encountered. It is a “passion project,” after all.

Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

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Midway through Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed film, Manchester by the Sea, sixteen-year-old Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) complains that his mother’s fiancé is “pretty Christian.” He delivers this observation with a hint of adolescent sarcasm, as if being “pretty Christian” is not only peculiar but, indeed, absurd. Listening to him is his uncle, Lee (Casey Affleck), who dryly responds: “You know, we’re Christian, too, right?” It is, in many respects, a throwaway scene — a bit of conversational filler as Lee and Patrick run errands in this picturesque town north of Boston. And yet, as the film unfolds, it takes on increased significance, as Manchester by the Sea is a film about the possibility (or, better yet, the impossibility) of redemption.

Lonergan’s screenplay — which almost certainly will receive an Oscar nomination — is a masterclass in narrative structure, navigating between past and present with devastating economy. The story centers on Lee, a Boston-area handyman, who spends his days doing thankless jobs for apartment clients and his nights in expressionless solitude, beer in hand. Yet, when Lee’s older brother dies of a heart attack, he is called to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle the funeral arrangements and to assume custody of Patrick. Lee handles the former task with guarded efficiency, as if it were an extension of his job, but the latter task proves far more troubling. Patrick is a challenging responsibility, whose social calendar is as active as his personal life messy, and Lee is faced with the burden of possibly uprooting him from Manchester or leaving him with his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol, in a poignant cameo). But there is an additional, and even more dolorous, complication. In a horrifying flashback, it is revealed that Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, another likely Oscar nominee), once suffered a catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions, and, in the wake of that event, Lee no longer feels capable of relationships, to say nothing of raising a young man. He simply wants to return to Boston and (quite literally, since he lives in a one-room basement apartment) bury himself underground. What’s more, many of the residents of Manchester feel the same way, effectively rendering the judgment of Job’s wife: “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9).

In the end, then, Manchester by the Sea boils down to this dilemma: will Lee choose to live (with all of the consequences of that decision, from caring for Patrick to reconciling with Randi), or will he choose to die? Indeed, it is a heartrending scenario, made all the more so by Affleck’s mournful performance. And though Lonergan seems to want to avoid neat answers, there is no doubt that his film is, finally, a tragedy. But what is a “tragedy”? It is a term that, despite a curious etymology, refers to “a play or literary work that has an unhappy ending.” In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that good tragedies bear the following characteristics:

  1. A protagonist with a basic flaw (ἁμαρτία) in his or her personality.
  2. A radical change in the protagonist’s fortune (περιπέτεια), due to this flaw.
  3. The consequent revelation or discovery (ἀναγνώρισις) of the protagonist’s true identity.
  4. The arousal of pity and fear in the tragedy’s spectators, which, in turn, brings about their own emotional purification (κάθαρσις).

Manchester by the Sea certainly exhibits the first three of these qualities, and, based on the audible sniffles and sobs in the theater, it achieved the fourth trait as well. Hence, as a formal exercise, it’s hard to conclude that Lonergan’s film is anything but a success. And yet, it is also for that reason that Manchester seemed deficient. It was as if I could hear Lonergan ponder: “What do I have to do to make Lee’s situation truly unbearable — indeed, tragic?” In that sense, I never fully accepted Lee’s περιπέτεια; rather than an organic occurrence, it felt contrived and, when combined with the other calamities facing the Chandler family (divorce, untimely death, unemployment, attempted suicide, alcoholism, ostracism, etc.), pretentiously overblown.

But I had a deeper concern, which recalls the reference to Christianity mentioned at the outset. As a tragedy, Manchester by the Sea effectively forecloses on the redemption of its protagonist: Lee confesses that he “can’t beat” his affliction and chooses to suffer his failure alone. Such a conclusion kindles our pity and fear (as it should), but it contradicts Lee’s profession of Christianity — a faith that, as Dante famously illustrated, is a comedy rather than a tragedy. That is to say, Christianity never stops at the cross but, rather, concludes with the resurrection and the ascension. Yes, it grants the pain of death, but this pain is slowly but surely overcome by love and, indeed, by Life itself. Despite featuring ostensibly Christian characters, Manchester by the Sea never seriously entertains this possibility. Its world is a world bereft of “good news.”

Needless to say, it would be surprising if Lonergan were unaware of this absence. Perhaps he’s commenting on the recalcitrance of human nature in the face of adversity? Perhaps he’s suggesting that, even if the rites and symbols of Christianity remain, we live in the era of the death of God? Whatever the case, in offering a tragedy for contemporary viewers, Manchester by the Sea takes us back in time…before Christianity, when the alluring yet haunting worldviews of Aeschylus and Sophocles reigned — an Oedipus Rex for our age.