Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Suffering in 'Silence'

In keeping with one of American cinema's oldest traditions, Martin Scorsese is responsible for some of the bloodiest films ever made. Unlike the blood spilt in the films of his contemporaries, like Coppola and De Palma, it isn't Kensington Gore - the trademark artificial blood that most closely resembles, in Technicolor, the real thing. In many, if not most, of Scorsese's films, blood is in abundant evidence, flowing stanchlessly from wounds either sustained or inflicted by his protagonists.

For at least the past thirty years, Scorsese has also informed us, through his choice of subject matter, that he is a devout Catholic. He turned Nikos Kazantzakis' guilt-streaked novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, into a vividly re-imagined, intensely personal film. Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul showed off Scorsese's down-to-earth casting choices and his efforts to bring the story home to his viewers. But Scorsese took some hits from the Roman Catholic establishment, including the Church's official banning of the film - which merely demonstrated that they never even bothered to watch it. Throughout a long career that includes much commercial work, work intended to appease producers who would not otherwise let him realize his most personal projects, a few of Scorsese's films have become monuments to his tenacity and to his integrity - ungainly, difficult projects practically guaranteed to lose money.

Scorsese has found it necessary, every decade or so, to scratch an old itch, to give in to his need to concentrate on subjects touching on America's rich culture, either the written (The Age of Innocence) or unwritten (Gangs of New York) or on matters of his Christian faith. His latest film, Silence, is the finished product of a thirty year fixation to realize his vision of 17th-century Japan after the Tokugawa Shogunate outlawed Christianity. In the story movingly told by Shusaku Endo (published in English translation in 1969), only certain individuals - captured Catholic priests - are spared immolation or crucifixion by being offered the choice of apostasy - renouncing their faith through some ritual like stamping on a sacred image of Christ and by abandoning celibacy by marrying a Japanese woman.

In his Times Literary Supplement piece, "Standing Up for Cinema," that I quoted from in my last post, Scorsese singled out two statements made by Adam Mars-Jones, the TLS film critic, in his review of Silence. I have since had a chance to read the review and it's clear to me that Scorsese misinterpreted and misrepresented Mars-Jones remarks.

Scorsese writes: "Near the end of his review, Mr Mars-Jones contends that 'even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration', and that the 'transposition' from novel to film 'can only amount to a distortion'. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form."(1)

I don't know exactly why Scorsese found these remarks objectionable, since they are an accurate assessment of how we experience a novel and a film. Mars-Jones's use of the word "duration" is important, since a film, just like music or theater but unlike literature, exists in time. Once a public screening of a film has begun, it continues inexorably until it is finished. When we read a book, we can stop, bookmark the page, continue with our lives, and return to the book later, starting where we left off. It becomes interwoven, as it were, in the fabric of our lives so that it becomes a part of it. Whenever I think of a great novel that I read many years ago, the characters and the action in the novel seem to be inextricably mixed up with events in my life that occurred while I was reading it. In contrast, we interrupt our lives to watch a film and we give our full attention to whatever is unfolding on the screen. Unless we walk out on the film, we cannot look away without missing something. Almost like a roller-coaster ride, we are committed to seeing a film through to the end once it has begun.

As for calling a film adaptation of a novel a "distortion," I think Scorsese interpreted the word in an exclusively negative sense. Most critics would agree that every translation of a poem or a novel from one language to another is a distortion. "Poetry," wrote Robert Frost, "is that which gets lost in translation." A film translates the novelist's words into images, which is an even more precarious distortion. This doesn't mean that translating a poem or a novel into another language or another medium is necessarily a mistake. Some translations, like Gérard de Nerval's translation of Goethe's "Faust" and Baudelaire's translations of Poe, are prized as great works of literature in themselves.

Many years ago, theater and film critic John Simon came up with a rule of thumb about adapting a work of literature to film (I'm quoting from memory): if it's worth doing, it can't be done; if it can be done, it wasn't worth doing. This seems like a somewhat draconian rule, but the evidence suggests that it actually isn't far from the mark. While there are a handful of quality film adaptations of estimable literary works (I think of something like Josef Heifitz near-miraculous film version of Chekhov's short story "The Lady with the Little Dog"), the vast majority of successful adaptations have been of inferior literary works (Carol Reed made a brilliant film of Conrad's minor second novel, An Outcast of the Islands). But in his "thoughtful" - Scorsese's word - review of the film Silence, Adam Mars-Jones was making another point about the differences between a novel and a film. Restored to their context, his judgement makes perfect sense:

"Even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for its duration. The transposition of a novel like Endo’s Silence into film, however 'faithful', can only amount to a distortion, an exaggeration overall however many elements of the book are represented. In the same way, Jonathan Demme’s film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, though full of imagination and craft, was so crushingly sad as to be oppressive beyond the possibility of entertainment. In a book, too, reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down. It’s not that those images can’t be richly inhabited by an audience, but their predetermined progress in a darkened space imposes mood insistently. Martin Scorsese’s version of Silence can’t fairly be called a failure, more a success in a key close to desolation."(2)

The ultimate point that Mars-Jones was trying to make was specific to Silence, both the novel and the film, and not intended as general statements about film. He was pointing out the way that the novel handled the very dark material and how Scorsese (mis)handled it. According to Mars-Jones, Scorsese's film succeeds in transposing Shusaku Endo's bleak history of the suppression of Christianity in 17th-century Japan, but in doing so it is in its final moments relentlessly, unbearably terrible to watch.

I'm not sure that Endo intended his tale to be edifying, to offer the reader some catharsis, no matter how conditional. It is an historical novel, reminiscent of Graham Greene's great novel The Power and the Glory, about a demoralized "whisky priest" in post-revolutionary Mexico. Roman Catholic Greene was telling a story about spiritual redemption, under circumstances of abject suffering. After the practice of Christianity was outlawed in 17th-century Japan, Catholic priests were smuggled in, despite the risks, because it was concluded that to abandon their Christian converts without any recourse to the sacraments would condemn them, as a consequence of their conversion, to a worse fate than they would've endured had they never been converted at all. By the end of the story, all outward evidence of the Christian religion is eradicated. Converts unwilling to renounce their faith, even after being brutally tortured, are killed. The ones who are left are forced to commit some sacrilege or other to prove their apostasy. The priests' defeat is shown to be complete. For the following three hundred years, isolated pockets of Christian believers survived, concentrated on the southern Japanese island of Kagoshima where, ironically, the second atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S., a predominantly Christian country, on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

In his fidelity to Endo's novel, Mars-Jones argues, Scorsese failed to offer the relief, however incremental, that Endo's novel provides from the "desolation" with which the story ends. It is almost as if Scorsese, like another devout Catholic filmmaker - Mel Gibson - was intent on creating his own Passion, a somber and brutal reminder of the man who, so the story goes, sacrificed himself so that our sins would be forgiven. Endo's novel ends with Father Rodrigues, have renounced his faith by putting his foot on an icon of Jesus, given a Japanese name and a wife, searching for some meaning to his defeat:

"I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. 'Trample!' said those compassionate eyes. 'Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.'"(3)

According to Mars-Jones, Scorsese failed to properly estheticize the suffering depicted in Endo's novel - suffering that Endo presented without leaving the reader in a state of distress. Another novelist, Hungarian Imre Kertész, survivor of a Nazi Death Camp, addressed the problem of approaching a relentlessly somber subject:

"I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon's head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can't ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors."(4)

I can't say for certain if Scorsese actually intended the experience of watching his film to cause discomfort. Quite disingenuously, Mel Gibson defended the unrelenting cruelty he depicted in The Passion of the Christ by insisting he was merely telling the story as St. Matthew presented it in his Gospel. But shouldn't an artist, like Martin Scorsese, find a way to distance the viewer from such brutalities? Isn't that the function of art, to avoid graphic, documentary-like realism in the representation of human suffering, to depict violence without doing violence to the viewer? Given Scorsese's apparent penchant for violence, on the infliction of pain and the spilling of blood, despite the fact that Silence is clearly meant to be taken more seriously, I have my doubts.

(1) Martin Scorsese, "'Silence,'" Letters to the Editor, The Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 2017.
(2) Adam Mars-Jones, "Subtle Absolutisms," The Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 2017.
(3) Shusaku Endo, Silence, William Johnston, translator (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
(4) "The Art of Fiction No. 220," The Paris Review No. 205, Summer 2013, Luisa Zielinski, interviewer.

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