A Raging Bull in the China Shop

Are some stories too harrowing or too intense to be turned into movies? Well, yes there are. Word comes to us that Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is being turned into a motion picture. Endo’s story of a priest whose mind and will are all but crushed by a people who refuse to be swayed by the Catholic Faith is a veritable tsunami of despair. It is not for the faint of heart. It is deeply depressing and yet can be a way for the reader to look into his own soul to see if it harbors any spiritual illness that needs healing.

Shusaku Endo’s priest in the novel asks, “Why does God allow this to happen to me”? The Japanese he encounters will not only not hear God’s message, they will try, in their defiance, to twist the brain of the priest himself, using a most subtle form of psychological manipulation, or torture, to destroy his will to go on. It is this aspect that makes Endo’s novel a profoundly disturbing book.

Endo’s cry is an age old one. Today’s variation on that might go something like this: why is God silent in the face of such overwhelming, stupefying evil? Only a few short days ago this writer received a phone call from a retired priest friend and, in the course of that call, this priest was asking the same question. He looks around him at the moral destruction of humanity being perpetrated by the same lunatic government we both suffer under and he asks, “when is God going to stop this”? How very often I have asked the same question myself. The silence of God in the face of such tribulations, such as those endured by Endo’s priest or those endured by us now, is a deep mystery involving God’s design for His ultimate triumph.

Endo’s cry is understandable if one reads a bit of his biography. Being a religious outcast in his own land cannot but have helped him form his views of both life and the Church he was baptized in. Bouts with severe illness, one of which laid him up for nearly three years in hospital, certainly gave him pause to think about suffering. But the one incident almost none of his biographers mention is an incident so shattering to the human soul and psyche that it would have taken superhuman mental strength to erase from one’s mind was the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a war crime committed by the United States against a civilian population. Curiously, it is not something noted by the many writers who have reviewed Endo’s book so favorably. We can speculate as to why few, if any, have mentioned it, but it goes without saying that such a barbarous act left few Japanese unaffected.

There are instances when the printed page cannot be successfully fashioned into a screen adaptation because the printed word, aided by our own imaginations, can better prepare us for a deeper understanding of things which the motion picture, which presents us with a succession of quick images that are solely dependent upon the abilities of writers, directors and actors, cannot do. The abilities required to give us that deep understanding are rare commodities in today’s motion picture business. To bring such a story to the screen and do it justice would require the gifts of a solid, artistic, and talented director, one capable of inward reflection, one on the same intellectual level as the book’s author and one who can convey in visual terms the twisted emotions of the story’s protagonists. Alas, it will not have such a director; it will have Martin Scorcese.

The movie industry has long since abandoned its primary function (i.e., to entertain), and has supplanted that with a sort of deranged mission to engage in “creative destruction” of every norm, every simplicity, every soupcon of beauty that the world still holds. (And I use the word “creative” very loosely whenever I speak about Hollywood.) Every attempt at presenting anything of a religious nature is either hilariously inept (for example, Noah, Exodus Gods and Kings, Son of God, etc.) or vile (Calvary, Last Temptation of Jesus Christ, JC Superstar, etc.). Frankly, I am not sure what else one could expect from an industry incapable of even making a proper 30-second TV commercial. But even if not dealing directly with a religious subject, the industry’s venom is apparent in almost everything it puts its hands to. The rule of thumb seems to be: If one wants to be inwardly soiled or violated one goes to today’s movies.

The screen work of Martin Scorcese swims in despair and in blood unrelieved by an understanding of the human condition. All of his films could be looked upon as variations on a single theme and, in the course of his career, these previous movie-making forays have become for the most part either instantly forgettable or unwatchable. To some, this may be a harsh judgement. But which of his movies can be turned to again with undiminished pleasure? Are there any, really? Clearly, someone who enjoys nihilism for its own sake and enjoys depicting sociopaths and their dead end of despair is not the type of person whose works one wishes to partake of on a regular basis. Even his “Raging Bull”, which found so much favor among critics, was little more than a masochistic exercise in non-stop head beating. To really understand the prize-fighting game, to try to find out what makes people enter or stay in such a racket, we find no help from Scorcese. (A film which does succeed in helping us to understand this sordid life is Robert Wise’s masterful film of the 1940s “The Setup”.) But Scorcese, who revels in depictions of suffering for its own sake, is uninterested, or perhaps unable, to explain why a man would stay in such a profession. We walk away from the film with no understanding at all of the character, or, I might add, an understanding of what the film was really all about. These are indications of what we may expect when he gets his hands on Endo’s book.

Scorcese finds the dregs of society and then makes a movie about them. The more ignoble or boring the hero the more he seems attracted to them. He makes movies about people one would walk across the street to avoid. Once exposed to a Scorcese movie character we never come back. We can always come back to Hitchcock because of the continued youthfulness of his films, as we can return to the works of a Howard Hawks, or some of DeSica’s masterpieces. But despair, and the endless spurtings of blood — and the more splattering of blood the better for today’s Hollywood — thrust out from the screen and into our minds can only hold the interest (of some) for a fairly short time. This is another clue about how this director will handle the characters in Endo’s story.

Endo’s book depicts mind torture in its most awful manner: an attack on the mind as an attack on the Faith. Sensitive souls may want to think twice before opening its pages. It is not a bedtime story for children. It is capable of making us stronger in our Faith; it is also capable of throwing us into despair and moving us to ask the question, “What is it all for?”

I am cynical enough to suggest that that is the feature that attracted Scorcese. He is a movie maker like a Mel Gibson or a Clint Eastwood, two other undernourished talents who enjoy silver screen cruelty for its own sake (why else would Mr Eastwood ask us to praise an American sniper in Iraq whose only claim to fame was the murdering of mostly innocent people he deemed as “savages,” or why would Mr. Gibson treat us to seventeen minutes of the scourging of Christ, overdoing it to such an extent as to cause nausea?) Great movie makers know when to stop, when to suggest. In today’s Spielbergian world of ham-fisted overkill, no one has the taste, or the skill, to know how to depict such things in such a manner that will get their point across effectively without having us lurching toward the vomitorium. [One of the most awful, terrifying scenes in film history was the famous shower murder of Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s 1960 PSYCHO. It lasted precisely forty-five seconds and never once did we actually see a knife piercing the flesh of the victim, but the horror came across clearly thanks to skillful editing, direction and a brilliant music score. Please take note Mr Gibson, Mr Scorcese, Mr Tarantino, Mr Eastwood, etc., etc., etc.] I therefore hold out little hope for a Scorcese-directed “Silence”.

But as one critic so aptly pointed out forty-odd years ago, blood and gore and sex are the devices of the untalented. Where Scorcese fails in his cinematic efforts is his inability to see people as people, to see them as something other than ciphers who live in the world Scorcese believes he has created for them. We are unable to believe in his characters because they do not behave as humans, and in saying that I am not referring merely to his depictions of extreme violence or the most degraded of people. Even characters he would have us sympathize with do not act as rational people. It is easy to imagine, then, how he will approach “Silence”. It is already known that of the “name” actors who have signed on to this project we find the usual collection of meager talents who will dutifully serve the director’s strange vision of a world inhabited by soulless automata going through their paces as if in a weird choreographed dance.

In telling on the screen what is essentially the story of a failed priest, or at least a priest who has failed in the task assigned to him, a director of skill and imagination is required. Such a director knows when to emphasize the suffering visually and when to pull back from its depiction, in that way relieving the audience of what would otherwise be a constant supping on the horrors of degradation, anguish, and failure. Perhaps the perfect cinematic example of the meeting of that kind of story with the right kind of director would be the brilliant 1947 film “The Fugitive,” directed by John Ford from the Graham Greene novel “The Power and the Glory”. The film is not only an excellent example of the “failed priest” who is reduced to terrible miseries under a tyrannical government, but a fine example of how such a depressing story can be so transformed by a first class director into something that actually leaves one uplifted and profoundly edified at the end. That is no mean accomplishment. It requires a sense of cinema, the ability to tell a story visually, with great taste. John Ford had the wherewithal to pull off that trick.

Will I see the movie “Silence” when it is released? No. The director’s career thus far is enough to convince me that I will be missing nothing by skipping it. As men grow older their views change and they become wiser, hopefully. There is therefore hope that Scorcese, brought up a Catholic (he once thought he had a vocation to the priesthood), will one day turn his cinematic life around and produce something of genuine value. Perhaps the Faith he all but renounced when he began to live the Hollywood lifestyle will haunt him at last and inspire him to find better stories to tell us. Perhaps a rediscovered Catholicism will also encourage him to be better at his job, too. But, for the present, advanced information indicates that this new project of his displays his trademark cynicism and ambiguity about religion, the same cynicism that allowed him to make his blasphemous and utterly failed movie about Jesus Christ, about which the less said the better, other than to say that he will always wear the shame of having participated in such a wretched enterprise. What we see by what has been written about his production of “Silence” so far is that he has yet again made a movie for the critics, the same critics who fall all over themselves whenever his name appears on a screen credit. The tiresomely predictable critical accolades will be showered upon it soon enough. Perhaps the critics are writing their reviews already. Scorcese does crave their acceptance. This characteristic homage to the gallery pundits leads me to believe that it will be a long time before he rejects the type of thing he has done in the past, if he ever does at all.

I realize of course that the movie, when it is released, will be reviewed by a number of Catholics who, caught up in the zeitgeist, will offer some praise to the talents of Mr Scorcese, and will remind us what a brilliant talented movie-maker he is. It is, after all, the thing to do. The same grasping at straws was evident in Catholic reviews of certain recent “religious” films of no merit whatsoever. No one wants to say plainly what needs to be said, or they are so jaded by the rubbish that is flung at us every day by the entertainment media, or that they are so starved for anything even remotely “religious” up on a screen, that they will prefer not to notice the amateurism, the poor craftsmanship, the inability to tell a story, traits that characterize so much of what comes off the Hollywood assembly line. I further realize I may be criticized for taking such a negative view of the director in question, or criticized for having the temerity to condemn a movie without seeing it. (My answer to that last point would be The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ, also directed by the individual in question. Would one really have to see it to know what a woebegotten mess it was?)

Along these same lines, I am dumbfounded by all the reviews on Catholic blogs for a piece of juvenile smut as “50 Shades of Grey”. I see the articles come up and I stare at the computer screen for several moments in utter amazement. Why on earth would any serious site, let alone a Catholic one, even waste a single word reviewing such junk? Why would anyone take such a movie seriously enough to grant it a review? Who would want to go to a theatre to even see it so as to review it? Are we so desperate to be “in the know” that we would even bother to take notice of yet another Hollywood assault on the mind, heart, and soul? Could someone explain this to me?

Some will quickly respond by saying that people have to be warned about how bad the movie is so that they will notwaste time seeing it. That someone would need to be warned about a bad movie at this late date is a trifle hard to believe. Are Catholics so totally delusional that they cannot sense immediately, using their common sense, after Heaven knows how many years, that Hollywood is not in the business anymore of producing wholesome products?

Real stories about real priests facing real dilemmas are fascinating subjects for the movies and the tragedy now is that there are no movie makers (let alone studio owners) capable of handling such a subject in the industry. The artists have mostly all left. Only the amateurs and the racketeers remain. There will be few if any masterpieces showing up on movie screens for the foreseeable future.

For now, I strongly recommend a cinematic masterpiece on the subject of a priest dealing with the personal agony of an apparently “lost cause”; it is still available on dvd, a work of art so beautiful and so near to perfection that there is really nothing else that compares with it. That is John Ford’s “The Fugitive” of which we have written. (When you sit down to watch it take the telephone off the hook, turn the room lights low or off altogether and watch this work of art about a priest in anguish. The cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa alone, in rich, lustrous black and white, is worth the price.)

Rather than allow a very middling directorial talent interpret Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” for us, skip the forthcoming movie and allow your own imagination guide you through his harrowing but beautifully-written book. It will be enough.

Why do I suggest that you avoid his movie? I will answer that by letting the man speak for himself. The final word goes to Mr. Scorcese:

“There was always a part of me that wanted to be an old time director. But I couldn’t do that. I’m not a pro.”