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Friday
Feb102017

THE FOREST FOR THE TREES (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

For this week's issue of CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, the debut feature by Maren Ade, the writer/director of TONI ERDMANN. It's showing on 35mm this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. To read my review, go here and scroll down to the "Crucial Viewing" section.

Friday
Feb032017

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

This week on CINE-FILE Chicago, I reviewed Raoul Peck's essential James Baldwin film, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Have a read, here.

Friday
Jan272017

LITTLE CAESAR (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I contributed a writeup to this week's issue of CINE-FILE Chicago of the gangster classic LITTLE CAESAR, showing this weekend in 35mm as part of the Music Box's Pre-Code Hollywood Matinee Series. Have a read here


Friday
Jan132017

Silence

Who was it who taught the bible-thumpers that the true meaning of God is love? -- Michael Powell on Martin Scorsese 

The profoundly moving Silence is a film about the subject Martin Scorsese has been probing from the very beginning of his career: the nature of faith in a complex world. It is over two-and-a-half hours long: Scorsese often goes long. (When I saw Casino, the theater put the lights up before the film was even over, which I considered an outrage.) It's sometimes heavy. And yet, as I let the beautiful filmmaking play over me, it didn't feel nearly as long as some 82-minute Hollywood insults to the heart, soul and mind. Scorsese's been my favorite director ever since I first became seriously interested in cinema, so I let this movie get me on its wavelength: the beautiful sound design, with its chirping crickets and lapping waves; Thelma Schoonmaker's sublime, cliché-subverting editing (right off the bat you notice they're playing with shot/reverse shot conventions); Rodrigo Prieto's exquisite cinematography. Scorsese's exhilarating, nervous quick-camera style, when it emerges, is like an old friend, and he co-wrote the script with one of his oldest friends, one-time critic Jay Cocks. The picture's duration worked on me. I concentrated, and as it unspooled the film began to have an oddly meditative, almost hallucinatory effect. 

As everyone knows who has read Paul Elie's excellent feature in the New York Times magazine, "The Passion of Martin Scorsese," Silence is one of Scorsese's dream projects, like Gangs of New York and The Last Temptation of Christ. Like those, it's deeply felt, cherished even, and slightly unwieldy. It is based on the 1966 novel "Chinmoku (Silence)" by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese convert to Christianity, which spoke deeply to Scorsese when he first read it in 1989. The resulting film is a deep, rich experience, and a sometimes taxing one. These most personal, long-gestated entries in his canon attain a kind of greatness because of their flaws, not in spite of them. 

Silence concerns the fate of a prodigal Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). He's a Christian missionary in seventeenth-century imperial Japan, when such men and their followers endured brutal persecution. As Elie recounts, Catholics "were forced to apostatize by stepping on the fumie — a piece of copper impressed with an image of Christ." When we first see Ferreira, he is being forced to bear witness to the torture of Christian converts. The tormentors give him a choice: he may save the lives of the converts and end their suffering, if he will step on the fumie and apostatize. Elie puts his finger on the central paradox with which the film asks us to grapple: "The priest profanes an image of Christ, and yet the act was an act of faith."  

The movie's first section takes place years after the opening scene, and the story unspools in the form of letters written by young Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who sets off on a quest to Japan to find out what has become of Ferreira, accompanied by another young priest, Father Francisco Garrupe (Adam Driver). Ferreira was the young mens' mentor. Throughout their adventures, an utterly dissolute peasant named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) keeps turning up. A former convert, he stepped on the fumie to save his own skin, betraying his own family, who themselves went to their deaths rather than renounce their faith. He's a weak, cowardly man, as opposed to the brave underground Christian martyrs, like the leader played by 83-year-old Yoshi Oida, or the young woman played by Nana Komatsu. He even betrays Rodrigues to the shogunate authorities, resulting in his imprisonment. Yet after every betrayal, he returns simpering to Father Rodrigues, begging for his forgiveness. And every time, Rodrigues gives it to him. What, then, is the way of true Christianity? Is it martyrdom? Or is true Christianity to be found precisely in forgiveness for the people who do the bad deed? 

At the prison camp, Rodrigues meets the shogunate's menacing Inquisitor Inoue, played with wicked sly humor by Issey Ogata (Yi Yi). The Inquisitor can debate the fine points of Christianity and Buddhism; in pointed parables, he rightly points out the link between imperialism and the missionary project. From the Inquisitor's point of view, the shogunate's sadism is a form of fighting back against a colonial assault on Japanese culture. With a malevolent grin, he tells Rogrigues he can save the lives of the converts--after all, he says, they suffer because of you. He need only step on the fumie and apostatize. This is utter anathema to Rodrigues: he won't do it. In his wooden-barred cage in the yard of the prison camp, he witnesses Christian converts told they may avoid torture by stepping on the fumie. Some do and some don't. Under torture, human beings may doubt their beliefs. God remains silent in response to Rodrigues' prayers and in the face of suffering. Indeed, there's a reading to be made of the film as a Holocaust metaphor. Why wasn't God watching?    

Rodrigues begins to fear his stubborn refusal to apostatize might have to do with his own selfishness and vanity. He worries that he is losing his mind, that he has a Messiah complex. With his shaggy mane and mad mien, Garfield gives the character a John-the-Baptist-in-the-wilderness desperation. He gazes into a stream and sees Christ's face in his own: narcissism defined. Is not the sin of pride the worst sin? His calling is one in which he is meant to have humility, yet he can't get past his own ego. 

Again, this feels profoundly personal for Scorsese. A few years ago he said, "I feel closer to Jesus now. I feel closer, but again, people have said that this is me seeing myself in Jesus. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that if you can see yourself in God, because it's your attempt to come to some sort of terms with God. It has to start somewhere. It has to start on some level. It starts on the lowest level, which is ourselves, and tries to get to the highest level, which is God." 

The spirituality of Silence is front and center, as in Kundun. Its Christian imagery is explicit, as in The Last Temptation of Christ. That is to say, it's not one of Scorsese's modern-dress versions like Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead or Mean Streets, where, to paraphrase Scorsese chronicler Mary Pat Kelly (referencing Isaiah), people search for the Holy Way in the "burning sands" of the streets of New York. As Elie puts it, The Last Temptation of Christ was about "Christ's doubt-ridden struggle between his human and divine natures." Sometimes he couches the theme in metaphor, but nearly all of his films are about that in one way or another. "The right way to live has to do with selflessness," Scorsese has said. "But Jesus' last temptation is very human. The human side of all of us doesn't want to suffer." 

At one point Rodriguez falls into extended, hallucinatory fits of prayer. In an astonishing moment, Jesus breaks his silence and speaks to him. (Maybe you will say that it's an inner voice.) I will not reveal what He says, only that it illustrates one of Scorsese's most deeply-held convictions: that Jesus understands our suffering. 
 
At such moments, Scorsese makes questions of faith alive and beautiful even for me, a doubter. 

The scene in which Rodrigues finally meets ex-Father Ferreira is remarkably acted. Now a Buddhist, he has built a peaceful, fulfilling life for himself in Japan, with a wife and family. Rodrigues regards Ferreira as a traitor to everything they ever stood for, indeed as a Satan-like tempter. They debate some of life's basic questions. How are we to act, to live? Ferreira begs of Rodrigues to step on the fumie. Show some compassion. Renounce your faith, and end this suffering. Neeson and Garfield are tremendous: you can see the very foundations of Rodrigues' world rocking. He steps on the fumie. What follows is a moving coda told from the point of view of a clerk with the Dutch East India Company, relating the curious story of the apostate priests he once knew in Japan. Rodrigues lives out a quiet family life, always publicly denying Christ, stepping on the fumie whenever asked. It all leads up to a final shot which I hope people will see and talk about for a very long time to come. 

As far as my own spirituality is concerned, I'd characterize it by saying I try to be humble in the face of the numinous. I grew up Methodist--not, in terms Scorsese might recognize, "tortured Catholic." (Nicholas Pileggi speaks of "all those bloody saints and all that absolutely sanguinary Southern Italian Catholicism that Marty is a part of. Everybody's house has pictures of Jesus opening his chest with a bloody heart pounding.") I would not call myself a Christian today. Yet there's a vision of humanity in religious art like Silence that very badly needs to be shared with the world. It has to do with the mysteries of love, compassion and beauty. Irregardless of religion, human beings struggle with faith and doubt every day. With Silence, Martin Scorsese has given me another signpost on my own journey.

In thinking about this review, I drew on the following fine volumes: Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Martin Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly and Masters of Cinema: Martin Scorsese (Cahiers du Cinema) by Thomas Sotinel. I also looked at Nick Pinkerton's interview with Scorsese in the January-February 2017 Film Comment and Paul Elie's feature "The Passion of Martin Scorsese" in the New York Times Magazine.

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 

Friday
Jan062017

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls is a shattering, sometimes cathartic adaptation of the beautiful Carnegie Medal-winning fantasy-drama novel for young adults by Patrick Ness. He wrote the screenplay, and the film is a mostly harmonious union of his vision and that of the film's Spanish director, J.A. Bayona (The OrphanageThe Impossible). Bayona's filmmaking is marked by a certain slickness and tremendous raw heart. Together, they've shepherded the heart of this tale to the screen, keeping it a tough-minded, heartbreakingly honest piece about faith, stories and grieving. The story, inspired by an idea by the late novelist Siobhan Dowd, herself taken away by the monster of breast cancer at age 47, is set in an English town, where a furious, scared 13-year-old boy, Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives with his young single mum (Felicity Jones). She is dying of cancer. Behind their house is a small hill on which stands a church, a graveyard, and an ancient yew tree.

Conor awakes at precisely 12:07 from a heart-stopping nightmare to find the tree, transformed into a massive monster, is now standing in his backyard. "Its voice rumbled low and loud," Ness writes, "with a vibration so deep Conor could feel it in his chest." Who but Liam Neeson, then, could voice the monster for the movie? Given the right sound system, you'll feel Neeson's voice rumbling right where Conor does. Hurling Conor about, the monster bellows that he has come to tell him three stories. Then Conor must tell him a fourth, and it must contain his truth.

We might be tempted, then, to see the monster as metaphor--for Conor's mum's illness, or for his anger, or even his encroaching manhood. In fact, the monster is neither metaphor nor dream. In the book, when Conor asks him to name himself, he bellows, "I am Herne the Hunter, I am Cernunnos, I am the eternal Green Man." That is, he is a creature of "the old ways," the ancient magic, come walking.

When his mum's illness gets so bad she needs to be hospitalized, Conor goes to stay with his non-traditional grandma (Sigourney Weaver), an active career woman who strikes him as bossy. Looking him in the eye, his mum has insisted it's okay for him to be angry. "And if you need to break things, then by God, you break them good and hard." Destruction's satisfying, as he discovers when, with the monster as his proxy, he demolishes his grandmother's museum-like sitting room and her treasured clock. This brings us to one of the great moments in the book, preserved in the film: grandma, speechless upon discovering the carnage, proceeds to pull down the last remaining standing object in the room, a display cabinet, herself. The monster is again Conor's surrogate when he beats the bully Harry (James Melville) to a pulp. When he must go see the head mistress, she's played by Geraldine Chaplin, whose presence has graced all three of Bayona's features.

For as much as the movie adaptation leaves out (readers will notice that the character of Lily, Conor's estranged friend, is excised altogether), it adds a crucial dimension: it makes Conor a young artist. Together, he and his mum draw and paint, and she teaches him that "the life is in the eyes." (They also watch films together in their living room, such as the 1933 monster movie King Kong--and by "films," I'm talking projector-and-celluloid). Making Conor an illustrator is also a bit of an homage to Jim Kay, whose kinetic black-and-white illustrations were so essential to the novel. It's a way of making illustration a key part of the film experience, as well. 

To depict the stories the monster tells Conor, the filmmakers deploy full-color animation by Barcelona's Headless Productions. These have a nice handmade, cutout collage feel. The monster's stories are fables of human complexity and adult contradictions. The first story is about a queen who is both "a good witch and a bad witch," and a prince who is both "a murderer and a savior." The second, a parable of selfishness, concerns a parson who owns a yew tree, and an "evil-hearted" apothecary who covets it for its healing properties. (After nothing else works, mum's doctors try a medicine made from yew trees. She holds out hope it could be the thing that heals her. "Belief is half of all healing," she says. "Belief is the cure, belief in the future that awaits.")

The third tale has to do with Conor's seemingly masochistic craving for punishment. (His horrible nightmares are born of what he considers a shameful secret.) As Bayona showed in The Impossible, he's riveting at handling characters swept up in great disasters, and the big set-pieces here, such as the nightmare finale, show what he can do as a conductor of apocalypse and nightmare. He always makes sure the special effects are in the service of life-and-death human stakes. 

This is intense material. Jones and Weaver leave their hearts on the floor, transmitting all the fierce, complicated love of the parent-child bond, as well as the rage and anguish that it should be torn asunder--that they are powerless to write a different ending to their story. The young MacDougall is called upon to be not just peevish, but to find the truth in the material, and he does it. He is the boy who must learn that "stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn't expect." 

Those of us who've been around for a few years, certainly a few more than the target audience for A Monster Calls, will admire how it shepherds its young adult audience, with great care and honesty, across the emotional terrain we know they will face in life, with all its mysteries and dangers. "Your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day," the monster tells Conor. "Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary." So how do you fight it, Conor asks? The answer comes back: by speaking your truth, even when you're afraid of what people might think. And we fight back with stories, which allow us to process those painful truths, contextualize them, sometimes even forget them for a little while. This is what our books, our films give to us. "Stories are the wildest things of all," says the monster. "Stories chase and bite and hunt." They can also heal.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)