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Crises of Faith & Filmmaking

Silly Assassin’s Creed gets religion more than does Scorsese’s ponderous and punishing Silence.

Martin Scorsese’s Silence almost offers a perfect allegory for godlessness in the age of Gawker and BuzzFeed. Set in the 17th century, the film depicts Japan’s persecution of Christian missionaries and converts. It follows two young Portuguese Jesuits, Father Sebastião​ Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), on a search for their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is missing in Japan and rumored to have renounced his faith.

The first images portray the crucifixion of several Japanese Christians at oceanside hot springs (“hells”). These multiple Gethsemanes seem to be surreal hallucinations revealing the cost of faith; they unmistakably evoke recent ISIS atrocities. It looks as if Scorsese is conveying a Catholic’s nightmare of what can go wrong in a secular world. This opening is powerful but also disorienting. As the story moves further away from contemporary political parallels and into the esoteric history of Christians in 17th-century Japan, the cool-tempered, drawn-out series of interrogations and torments is bewildering.

Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo and a 1971 film by Masahiro Shinoda, Silence could easily have been titled “Quest,” but Scorsese’s stress on the noncommunication between man and God gives the title “Silence” a particularly disturbing meaning. (The silence is symbolized in part by Father Ferreira’s absence from his former students, which leads to an ironic plot twist.) There’s a sense of career isolation here, despite the usual hype about this film having been decades in gestation. (How many “passion projects” can a Hollywood mogul like Scorsese claim?)

Silence reveals Scorsese’s difficulty in maintaining faith and tradition in a world gone mad — the constant Catholic condition — yet this personal and social dilemma gets drowned out by his ponderous religiosity and his movie-brat distractions.

Agony by agony, Silence imitates the classic films about religious intolerance and spiritual doubt: Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe hide in tall ferns from avenging warlords, evoking Sternberg’s Anatahan (1953); their witnessing of enslavement recollects Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954); their surprise at the Japanese converts’ devotion recalls Borzage’s The Big Fisherman (1959); Rodrigues’s questioning by a devious old samurai (Issey Ogata) is a twist on Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951); a recurring Judas figure representing abject mankind brings to mind Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965); an icon of enduring faith references Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987); even Neeson’s appearance unfortunately brings to mind Batman Begins (2005). Yet none of these references ultimately increases our understanding of today’s spiritual and cultural crisis; these scenes are inscrutable, as though a movie buff were citing a mixed-up catechism.

After the genuine internal journey of Mean Streets (1973), which looked at Roman Catholicism among urban American hooligans, Scorsese never again showed suffering; he hid his personal dilemma behind violent macho bravado. (Raging Bull’s religious overtones were portentous and irrelevant to the film’s egotistical flourishes.) This time, Scorsese tries an obscure religious perspective, using a more composed, dignified, “classical” style, which makes this a religious movie without the fervor of either a penitent or a convert. There’s one great shot in which Rodrigo Prieto’s camera tilts up from a boat in churning seas to the sun in clouds, but even this is an image of confusion.

This film about spirituality and faith suffers from the lack of both. Scorsese wallows in all manner of cruel attacks against faith — unlike Hacksaw Ridge and unlike Sansho the Bailiff. When he repeatedly subjects Father Rodrigues (and the audience) to the blasphemy of stepping on a Christ icon, it feels like self-flagellation, at odds with the effort to defy contemporary Hollywood nihilism. Father Rodrigues respects Japan’s “hidden Christians” for believing “the promise that their suffering would not end in nothingness but in salvation,” yet Scorsese shows that faith in words only. Instead, one landscape nearly reproduces the sinister cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album; perhaps Scorsese has never heard Morrissey’s “I Have Forgiven Jesus.”

Silence takes a juvenile approach to what Ingmar Bergman already explored in his Sixties “Silence of God” trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963). Those films, famous at one time on the long-gone art-movie circuit, depicted the spiritual agony of Christians in the modern, secular world. But Scorsese, belonging to the draft-dodging generation of movie-brat auteurs (Coppola, Spielberg, DePalma), seems to have lost touch with the cultural basis of Bergman’s spiritual questioning, as well as Fellini’s, Rossellini’s, and the subversive Buñuel’s.

Just as the increasingly faithless movie-brats have taken simplistic, anti-West, progressive stances on political history and gone silent on the contemporary persecution of Christians, Silence shows little real interest in the ISIS and Taliban allegory it initially presents. Silence becomes a weirdly punishing chronicle of the tests that Christians endure to hold on to their faith in the face of assaults from enemies. Scorsese naï​vely and sentimentally equates this troubling history — and its all-too-modern counterpart in the Middle East and elsewhere — with a crisis of the heart.

* * * * *

Did anybody go to see Assassin’s Creed, the perfectly disreputable antidote to Silence? With less gravitas than Scorsese, director Justin Kurzel adapts the eponymous violent video game and gets right to the point of religious and moral conflict in this postmodern, medieval, gothic sci-fi flick about the descendant of a heretic from the Spanish Inquisition and the social scientist who experiments with eradicating mankind’s violent instincts.

Kurzel made the surprisingly effective Macbeth (2015), with Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard, and reteams them here (Fassbinder is Cal Lynch, heir of the heretic Aguilar, and Cotillard is Sofia, humanitarian daughter of a fascist tycoon). Going from the 12th century to the 21st century, Kurzel does variations on themes from Macbeth, and lots of this grab-bag nonsense is as provocative as it is silly.

There’s the usual video-game confusion about history and ethics, giving the Nietzschean quote “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” more emphasis than any scriptural quote. But this video-game nihilism also offers an Orwellian cautionary tale — A Clockwork Orange morphs into Minority Report and Ghost Rider with a constantly moving camera, cross-cut parkour fighting, furious action, and a relentless exercise in montage.

The crucifixion postures and Christian allegories flying around in Assassin’s Creed at least show genuine filmmaking intelligence — plus, a franchise-ready, impressively physical performance by Fassbinder that’s almost worthy of Zack Snyder. Inept Ron Howard made it easy to hate the abuse of religious faith in The DaVinci Code but Kurzel shows stupid-terrific skill, without Scorsese’s self-importance.

Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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