Silence ★★★★½

First, a reflection on this film's relationship to my favorite film of the year:

Silence and Cameraperson are currently my favorite films of 2017, and I'm a bit giddy with excitement at how much the two films echo one another. I'd argue that Cameraperson is the greater cinematic achievement. That's because it has more to do with what cinema can do — what a poetic association of images can accomplish. Silence, by contrast, is a great work, but a derivative one. It is a powerful example of how cinematic tools can be employed to create an illustrated (and abridged) version of a novel. It is a film based on literature.

But this is not meant as a criticism of either. One is about as impressive as cinema gets, for this moviegoer, and the other is about as impressive as adaptations (from literature to film) can get. Both are stellar examples of their genre. Silence illuminates an existing manuscript, while Cameraperson strikes me as a new manuscript... even a new kind of manuscript.

But enough about that. Now to the movie in question...

[Immediate response]

It's an admirably faithful adaptation. But throughout I found myself thinking more about its director than its central character. I can scarcely believe that this movie came from Martin Scorsese. Don't get me wrong — I believe he's worthy of all the praise he receives, and I love everything from Taxi Driver to After Hours to Age of Innocence to Last Temptation to Casino to Wolf of Wall Street. But this? Wow. It's one of those films that revises my understanding of the artist's whole body of work.

And I find that aspect of the film to be even more compelling than Rodrigues's tests of faith, which are more gripping for me in the long and meditative experience of reading the book, line by line, page by page, than they are in watching a 2-hour and 17-minute movie.

That's not Scorsese's fault — his film is an act of love for Endo's work just as it is an act of confession about his own life. But in the end, I believe that this is just one of those stories that needs to live in your imagination, page by page, over time, as literature rather than staged drama. That is to say, we need to inhabit this character rather than watch him. Reading the book, I experience his feelings just as the author hopes I will. Watching the movie, I observe his feelings, which gets in the way of me feeling them properly. I am very aware that I am watching an actor (a very good one!) trying to approximate the extremes of emotion and pain that his character endures. It's impressive, but not nearly as affecting.

[Next morning response]

Art is not what's on the page or canvas, but what happens between a particular person's imagination and the expression he receives.

Scorsese has received Endo's masterpiece with wide-eyed, open-hearted attention and vulnerability. The version that he offers back is different than the book in subtle but profound ways, ways that, I would argue, change the meaning of the story's conclusion significantly — and meaningfully. This is not Endo's Silence so much as it is What Happened Within Scorsese's Head and Heart Over Years of Meditating on Endo's Silence. And yet, having said that, as film adaptations of great books go, this is an astoundingly reverent and tenderly handled translation... one that shows passionate love for the source material.

The cast (especially the Japanese actors) is uniformly excellent, creating distinct characters in which we quickly learn that every line — particularly those from the Japanese oppressors — is loaded with implications, nuance, and sleight-of-hand.

Issey Ogata has been a favorite actor since I first saw him in Yi Yi and then again in Tony Takitani. I didn't recognize him here, and gasped when I saw his name in the credits. His performance is one for the ages; he does things with his face, voice, and body that create a singular character, one unlike any I can recall at the movies.

And Neeson: Wow. While his movie-star status does make his presence somewhat distracting at first, delivers, in the last hour of the film, what I think is the finest of his career — a complex portrait of damage, doubt, and internal conflict. He threatens to steal the movie away from Andrew Garfield. (More about Garfield to come.)

I am particularly intrigued about a few subtle revisions that Scorsese has made, especially near the end — where I feel we are seeing Scorsese's interpretation of a profoundly and provocatively ambiguous conclusion. It isn't my interpretation, but then, every reader is likely to come away from this literary masterpiece with unique and personal responses. (I don't want to say more right now, as that would move too deeply into spoiler territory.)

My biggest struggle with this film (aside from several instances in which the editing chops up scenes and physical continuity in jarringly distracting ways) is with the portrayal of Rodrigues by Andrew Garfield. It's a sincere performance, showing total commitment. But — as I said earlier — where the experience of reading the book is one of inhabiting the character and constructing in our own imaginations the horrors that he witnesses, the experience of the movie is one of glimpsing horrors and then watching an actor depict a range of fear, horror, anguish, and rage. It is a far different thing to watch a character's reactions than it is to see the world through his eyes. Because the experience of the book conditions us to live within Rodrigues's experience, the shocks and turmoil slowly warm to a boil and then explode in a way that, for this reader and many more, has been transformative. To watch this happen in less than three hours is an altogether different thing; while Scorsese moves things at a meditative pace, he cannot help but give the key scenes of torment and drama more space and attention in proportion to the rest than Endo does. The result, then, is harrowing but not likely to be anywhere near as personally involving and affecting as the discovery of these events in the course of reading them.

Perhaps it's best to put it this way, lest it sound like I'm criticizing Garfield: I am glad that I read the book first, and I am so glad that the book was not illustrated. That process of image-making, of constructing pictures in my head based on Endo's words, pictures unlike any I had ever seen or imagined, made the experience of reading this story part of my DNA in a way that no film could, not even this one.

But the movie works as a beautifully illustrated manuscript, and as a personal testimony from its director. This is how he sees and receives Endo's story, and that is fascinating and valuable enough. For all kinds of reasons, it's a movie that will haunt me, as the novel already has for many years — just to a lesser degree.

Finally: Two things.

First, this film is so much more valuable than just another Mel Gibson-like story of one man's righteous physical endurance of torture. In fact, Endo's story is a purposeful deconstruction of religious pride; it asks us to realize that faith is made perfect in weakness, in failure, in coming to see that while we must follow Jesus, we cannot become Jesus through a show of grit and determination. Our "hero" must learn to surrender his imperfect measures of achievement in order for Christ to do a real work of transformation through — and to — him.

And secondly, Scorsese's work of adaptation is a stirring illustration of one of the book's core insights: Just as Christianity in its traditional cultural and institutional forms does not flourish in Japanese culture due to some fundamental misunderstandings born of linguistic incongruities, so Endo's story (in my opinion) cannot be realized as a film in a way that is "true to the book." Film is a different language. And no two languages are exact equivalents. The work of translation is, in fact, the creation of a new thing. It can honor the original, but in the process it both gains and loses something. This is a good lesson, I think, for moviegoers and readers to consider, just as I think it helps reveal what really happens to Rodrigues in the end. Is the test he faces really threatening to strip him of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or is it asking him to give up his claim to the particularities of his certainties, his traditions, his practices, his script, and asking him to "die to himself" so that he can break open like a seed and find out a whole new manifestation of the Gospel within new limitations?

Heavy stuff, I know. But this is how the film, by inevitably failing to create an equivalent to the book (although I can barely imagine a more satisfying attempt), actually ends up demonstrating the book's most important insights.

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