Monday, April 24, 2017

Silence: An Exercise in Film Criticism and Cultural Jeremiad

Note: Every possible kind of spoiler exists herein. Proceed at your own risk.

The elusive, controversial American Catholic filmmaker Martin Scorcese spent roughly thirty years trying to adapt Silence, a novel by the equally elusive and controversial Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. After momentous efforts and many false starts, the film was finally released last year, to general bemusement and a box office take of roughly 16 million (on a 40 million budget). The film’s distributors, perhaps hoping to avoid controversy, promoted the film very little, and released it only in a heavily limited number of theaters for a very short run. The film was ignored by all major cinematic awards, garnering no Golden Globe nominations and only one Academy Award nomination (for best cinematography), which it did not win. Although it had its vociferous defenders, including most top film critics, it also garnered its share of controversy and vicious criticism, from a number of very different sources. For all intents and purposes, the film sank like a stone, leaving few ripples in its wake.

Still, I saw it, and I also followed the buzz surrounding the film fairly closely; and I found both the film and the responses it provoked almost equally fascinating. I read the novel the film is based on a number of years ago, and, as with Scorsese it has stayed with me ever since; and this in turn inspired me to read a moderate amount about the historical situations that inspired the novel, as well as other works of its author, Shusaku Endo. I also come at both film and novel from the perspective of a practicing Catholic who studies intellectual history academically and also (while by no means being an expert) reads a great deal of Catholic theology, present and (mostly) past. All this has given me, I think, a perspective on film and book different from the average American. It is my basic contention, then, that the film, being what it is, has a great deal to tell us about the perspectives and basic orientations of the people who watched it. And this in turn has a great deal to tell us about the current state of our society.