Some Thoughts on Silence

Note: This brief overview of Martin Scorsese’s Silence was originally written for another outlet, but was passed over for various reasons.


Watching Silence with Protestants

Just to be clear, this is not a formal review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is being released nationwide today. Quite by accident, I had the opportunity last night to attend a preview screening of the film hosted by John Loeks, Jr., the owner and operator of the highly successful Celebration Cinema theater chain in West Michigan. The screening, which was attended primarily by Protestants of various stripes and featured an after-viewing discussion facilitated by Calvin College’s Carl Plantinga, provided not only an opportunity for me to witness how a master filmmaker handled one of the most unsettling and contentious novels I have ever read, but a chance to see first-hand how emaciated American Protestantism has become. Keep in mind that West Michigan is no secular outlier; it is home to both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America, along with countless evangelical sects and mega-churches. As recently as a decade or so ago, West Michigan was identified as the second most conservative area in the United States—just behind Salt Lake City, Utah. Whatever our faults (and there are plenty of them), a lack of Jesus isn’t one of them.

In both my casual conservations with the screening’s attendees and the audience-wide discussion itself, I found myself unsettled by how easily the heroic ideal of mission is reduced to a vague notion of “service.” One audience member, who not surprisingly is involved in interfaith dialogue, declaredly proudly that the message of Silence is about setting aside pride, particularly the pride of believing one knows “the truth.” In absolute defiance of the film’s brutal depiction of heroic martyrdom, this gentleman lauded the “enlightenment” of contemporary missionaries who go abroad not to “convince others” but to engage in public works. While missionary activity has long been connected with education, charitable giving, and even bottom-up social renewal, at the heart of all true missionary activity—particularly the Tridentine missionary activity of the Society of Jesus in the 16th and 17th centuries—is the salvation of souls. I dare say that some thought I was an alien from another world when I suggested that Jesuits once went forth to win souls for Christ, not spread multiculturalism.

If the aforementioned gentleman’s comments were an aberration, I’d think nothing of it. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Almost without exception, every audience remark was pregnant with religious liberalism and the belief that Scorsese’s movie—just like the novel it is based on—gloriously preaches indifferentism. How that shoddy interpretation squares with the martyric witness of simple peasants is quite beyond me. Beyond me as well is the sense that many in the audience got that Endo’s story is about the spreading of neutered Christianity unmoored from a concrete Church rather than Catholicism. And at least on this point, one audience member (a professor at Calvin College) suggested that the movie’s meaning is likely to be more apparent to Catholics than Protestants. In replying to her, I was tempted to say something about iconoclasts, but I resisted.

There’s no need for me to repeat every scandalous opinion put forth. However, after leaving the theater, I spent a good 15-30 minutes going over the film in my head, wondering if I hadn’t been too quick to read the Catholic Faith into a film that many apparently understood as a lesson in why it’s important to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” around a campfire rather than ask the only question ever worth asking, “What think ye of Christ?”

Although subsequent viewings may dislodge this belief, I remain convinced that whether by accident, design, or a bit of both, Scorsese’s Silence is neither an apologia for apostasy nor panegyric to cultural relativism. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy film. Some concerned Catholics have suggested the film, like the book, is theologically dangerous—and to some extent they’re right. Any artistic achievement that attempts to wrestle with the most difficult tenets of the Faith risks obscuring more than it clarifies. By raising difficult questions without ready-made, manulist answers, Silence inadvertently invites idiotic replies. But more than that, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of faith and the hard truth that God’s apparent silence is more often than not our obstinate refusal to listen.

Rogue One: A Spoiler-Packed Review

The following post is a spoiler-heavy “review” of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (R1). More accurately, it is a series of thoughts on the film written from the perspective of someone who has been a die-hard fan of the franchise since his youngest years. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a “film buff,” nor do I suffer under any illusion that R1, or any installment in the Star Wars saga (which, since Disney took custody of the property, now includes closely monitored cartoons, books, and comics, in addition to the movies), will ever be deemed “high art.” Moreover, the eight films contain errors, contradictions, continuity flaws, flat characters, under-developed plot points, etc. that can never be fully rectified, especially at this stage in the game. And that’s fine. As you will see from my thoughts below, R1 is intended to both deepen and widen Star Wars, not just in terms of galactic scale, but the motives and desires of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. In my opinion, it was highly successful at doing so.


A Critical Note on Kriss and American Sniper

I know very little about Sam Kriss, except that he writes a blog entitled Idiot Joy Showland, publishes in Left-leaning outlets, and penned Pater Edmund Waldstein’s favorite reflection on the Charle Hebdo killings in France. People I am friends with in real life and via social media enjoy Kriss, and many more are enjoying his recent piece on Chris Kyle, the slain Navy SEAL whose life—or a certain framing of his life by director Clint Eastwood in the film American Sniper—is causing a tidal wave of controversy. Some of the controversy is quite silly; a good deal of it is trivial and nitpicky; and then there are the heavy-hitting critiques which purport to expose the flaws in both Kyle’s character and Eastwood’s filmmaking talents. For some, such as Kriss, the two are almost intertwined, though perhaps Eastwood shares a bulk of the blame for crafting a movie which portrays Kyle unrealistically while glorifying the Iraq War (and perhaps war in general). For all of Kyle’s faults, including fabricating several outrageous tales in his ghostwritten autobiography, a desperate desire to hide them wasn’t one of them. As Kriss recounts, Kyle bragged remorselessly about the number of people—military and civilian—he killed during his tours in Iraq and his opinion of the Iraqi population as a whole was less-than-edifying. Moreover, Kyle never questioned the Iraq War nor had any qualms about his mission—a mission he frames as protecting American military lives above all else. That facet of Kyle’s character does make its way into Eastwood’s biopic, and it is the least bothersome part of the film.


A Critical Remark on Linklater’s Boyhood

Friends, acquaintances, and movie critics told me I needed to see Richard Linklater’s ambitious film Boyhood. Shot over a 12-year period, Boyhood attempts to show the physical, mental, and emotional development of a six-year-old boy named Mason in an unprecedentedly realistic manner while chronicling the ups-and-downs of his (divorced) parents’ lives. The mother, played by Patricia Arquette, has a rough go of it as a single mother who enters into two disastrous relationships with alcoholics before pulling herself out of dependency with a college education. The father, portrayed by the often insufferable Ethan Hawke, is the quintessential deadbeat dad: obsessively cool, self-justifying, and locked in adolescence for 80% of the film, he manages to finally “figure it all out” with his second stab at marriage and children. No negative consequences flow from his actions (or, rather, inaction and inattentiveness). Not even Mason appears noticeably harmed by his father’s absence; he even remains immune from harm by the aforementioned alcoholics, which is distressingly convenient. What would the audience think about Mason’s actual father had his son took a beating or suffered emotional harm at the hands of other men? But then that might raise more troubling questions about the social acceptability of absconding fathers.


2014 Year in Movies

I am not a big film buff, and ever since I left Chicago and the early morning discount at the AMC downtown, I am typically disinclined to visit a movie theater. For what it’s worth, here are the top 15 new movies I saw in 2014. Some titles released in late 2013 are on here as well. Oh, and I have seen neither The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies nor Exodus: Gods and Kings. I don’t anticipate that I will ever see the latter, actually.


Knight of Cups

I enjoy, even at times love, Terrence Malick’s films. There. I said it, and I won’t apologize for it either. Knight of Cups, his seventh, is due in theaters early next year — a shocker given that To The Wonder came out less than three years ago. Under the usual Malick time horizon, one would expect a decade — maybe two — to go by first, but since 2011’s Tree of Life, he seems intent on getting his projects wrapped up sooner rather than later.

Although I am not deaf to thoughtful criticism of Malick’s work, I believe David Bentley Hart did a fine job lampooning a great deal of anti-Malick sentiment with his “Seven Characters in Search of a Nihil Obstat.” It seems that too many want to approach Malick as a “religious filmmaker” which, in their minds, means he has to be a “Christian filmmaker” with a clear confessional bent. People are understandably uncomfortable with what I would call the “natural theology” of The Thin Red Line; there are Gnostic undertones to the cryptic spirituality which emerges from attempting to comprehend the darkness which relentlessly attempts to engulf the light.

Knight of Cups, based on the trailer, looks surprisingly straightforward film: a life of excess called into question by rediscovering love. If the theme is truly that simple, would it be so bad?