Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Realist - a filmmaker whose style is characterized by the representation of people or things as they actually are
Formalist - a filmmaker who is focused on the formal, or technical, elements of a film: i.e., the lighting, scoring, sound and set design, use of color, shot composition, and editing.
Realist movies are probably my least favorite type of film. I'm not sure what it is about them, but I think they rely a little too much on the story and not enough on the medium that film provides them. In many cases, they're just straightforward documentations of characters going through an entire arc or linear storyline. It's why I think that biopics that have no formalist elements often times end up being bland and forgettable oscar bait (I'm looking at you Theory of Everything you loud piece of shit). It's also why I've said Martin Scorsese is a master of biopics. Every single one he's made has some formalist or artistic element that sets them apart from other films. Wolf of Wall Street made Wall Street colorful and interesting because of how fast-paced and disjointed the story was presented. Aviator changed its aesthetics as the film went on to highlight the passage of time whilst matching the filming styles of its respective time. Raging Bull, well, is Raging Bull. You get the point, Martin is really good at what he does. So when I found out that he was doing a film on Portuguese priests spreading their religion through feudal Japan, I was a little skeptical. When I found out it was going to be a predominantly realist film I got very, very skeptical. But I trust him and his ability to tell a good story. And in the end I can say, this is about as well as anyone can make a realist film. (note: there are formalist elements here such as narration and flashbacks, but are so few and spread out that it doesn't affect the overall style of the film).
Silence follows two Portuguese priests played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver who are tasked to set out to Japan to find their missing mentor who originally went there to convert Japanese peasants to Christianity. The priest, played by Liam Neeson, is now rumored to have apotheosized or denounced his own religion. From the moment they enter Japan, they find out it's a very brutal and unforgiving place where your religious preference could mean your life. So right off the bat, this is a very long and very arduous movie. The run time clocks in just under three hours, and it really feels like it. Initially, I found myself thinking that this movie really dragged towards the end and really should have wrapped up a lot sooner. But as I sat and thought about it, I think this was a very deliberate choice. We're supposed to suffer and struggle along with our main character. He's basically put on a trial that slowly breaks him down as a man and crushes everything he believes in. Any shots that hang for too long, or scenes that seem to be excessive are all purposeful to make us feel uncomfortable towards the situation. I kind of like that a lot, as there's no real other way to empathize with the characters other than to show their suffering as much as possible. The acting is pretty solid here, for the most part. Andrew Garfield is obviously the star here, but no one gave an extraordinary performance in my opinion. I think that had to do with the fact that the Portuguese priests were speaking in English, but everyone in the film was acknowledging it as Portuguese. Which I get it, it's a nice workaround to make it more realistic, but it is a little glaring that all other languages are spoken authentically.
One thing I really love here is actually the costume and set design. Everyone is wearing authentic period-accurate clothing, and none of it seemed like movie costumes. I really did feel like I was in ancient Japan because of how well it was shot, like this eerily spacious swamp island that is filled with people ready to kill at any moment. That sort of emersion is key when you as an audience member are asked to run this gauntlet with Andrew Garfield. There's also a deliberate restraint from music. This actually goes along with the theme and even the title of the film, Silence. Silence being what you hear when you pray to God when you're most desperate. What all these people are hearing right before they're killed by feudal lords. It's the ultimate test of faith. Do you think there's an omnipotent being listening? Does he think you're worth responding to? That's for you to decide, and that's the notion that's tested on these Christian priests. Camera work here is solid as well, but I have to say it's probably Scorses's least notable effort.
Something else I really loved was the portrayal of the Japanese people in the film. Those who wanted to be, or called themselves Christian were doing it for really interesting reasons. They were dedicating themselves to this religion because of what the white men were promising them this religion would offer. In that sense, it becomes less of a religion for them and more of a drug. They were searching for any sort of salvation, any validation to help them push through the difficulties they face in their everyday lives. They were loyal and determined, yes, but it was all in the pursuit of a salvation loosely promised to them. And the Japanese lords. They are touted to be these extremely dangerous and ruthless killers who will offer no mercy to those who chose to follow Christianity. And they are, but not really at the same time. They are brutal make no mistake about that. They kill senselessly and offer some of the most intense torture to their own people. But they only so inhumanely kill their own people to make an example out of them. When it comes to Andrew Garfield's character, all they want out of him is to renounce the religion. They knew that Japanese Christians would see him renounce it and follow by example. That's all they want, and they even tell him, "just apotheosize you don't have to really mean it." They don't want to hurt good people, they just have to do it to maintain their control. And as a result, they put him in a terrible position to break down everything he believes in.
So that's Silence, a movie that grows on me the longer I think about it. I'm not sure this is one I'll be watching many more times in the future, but I really appreciate it for what it is. This film is also riddled with details of motifs all throughout the story. Pay attention to the character of Kichichiro and what his motives represent about a disingenuous religious follower. Overall, I'm glad I saw this film and I think anyone interested in ancient Japan or religious persecution should definitely give this film a look lol. 8.5/10