By Diana Cheng
Asian American Press
It’s a bit sad to see Martin Scorsese having had to defend the cinema. He wrote the piece in the May 31 issue of The Times Literary Supplement in response to the review of his film Silence by the novelist and literary critic Adam Mars-Jones. It is telling that the director didn’t write a defense of his film, but cinema itself.
Here’s the contentious viewpoints of Mars-Jones’s review, entitled “Subtle absolutisms”:
“The transposition of a novel like Endo’s Silence into film, however “faithful”, can only amount to a distortion, an exaggeration overall however many elements of the book are represented.”
“In a book, too, reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down.”
Really? Is a movie, and in this case, Scorsese’s adaptation of Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, a piece of “subtle absolutisms” as Mars-Jones’ title suggests? Do viewers in the theatre have no say but to receive from whatever mood or themes the director hands down to them, devoid of ‘collaboration’? Has the director presented to us – subversively as the title implies – his interpretations and we remain as the silent, passive, unthinking targets?
We’ve heard it before, haven’t we, that a movie leaves no room for the imagination. We can see it all, so explicitly displayed, in actions, color, and mood, while readers reading a book interact with the book author to create a mental picture as they read, exercising their imagination.
I disagree with such criticisms. Even a two-dimensional painting can evoke in viewers a myriad of responses, let alone moving pictures. And how we interpret and interact with such sequential, moving images can be as diverse and subjective as our personalities and life experiences.
If as Mars-Jones says “those images [have] their predetermined progress in a darkened space imposes mood insistently” and if Scorsese embeds his ‘subtle absolutisms’ so ingeniously, the film should bring out very similar responses, predominantly one, as Mars-Jones has concluded: “desolation.”
But as one who dwells in a liminal, in-between space of two cultures, I’ve come across very different reactions to the film Silence. Such could well be said are the results of internal collaborations viewers have had while experiencing Scorsese’s visual storytelling. Indeed, the film has aroused different responses across cultures.
Among Western critics, it’s usually the aesthetics, acting, cinematography, and mood that are the key features noted, as with Mars-Jones’s review. Many point out they’d like to see the roles reversed with the two actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. Many have noted that the film is being ‘faithful’ to the book, however, falling short of discussing the significance of such ‘faithfulness’.
This is an important point when reviewing the film. I usually do not seek how faithful a film is to its original literary work, for the two are totally different art forms, each expresses in its own terms and the appreciation of such should not be measured using the same criteria. When it comes to Scorsese being ‘faithful’ to Endo’s descriptions and narratives, unlike Mars-Jones’s critique of ‘exaggeration’, I find the director is unusually restrained here. He follows closely with Endo’s narratives, his treatment of the persecutions of Japanese Christians poignant and heart-stirring, bringing out meaning rather than gratuitous images. All such restraints point to Scorsese’s admiration and respect for the author and his work. At times, I feel Endo’s writing even more graphic.
On the other hand, among Asian viewers, especially among Chinese Christians (overseas and in Hong Kong), the film stirs up deep, theological resonance. Many have shared their heartfelt responses in the print and social media, heated debates ensue among believers, and even from the Sunday pulpit. The film’s characterization emerges as the prime subject for debates: Is Father Rodrigues a true Christian? Can apostasy be pardoned in the face of coercion? What does the last scene tell us about Rodrigues? Can one lead a two-faced, dichotomized life of faith like the hidden Japanese Christians? Or with some, the film has prodded the reflexive to see oneself in the Judas character Kichijiro. A call for empathy for those under authoritarian pressures to give up their faith appear to be an unexpected result, albeit the other side would push for perseverance no matter what.
Rather than the overhanging cloud of near desolation as Mars-Jones points out, the film had stirred up ripples of vibrant discussions around the issues of salvation, suffering, apostasy, betrayal, denial, and redemption. Many of the views I’ve read reflect a pleasurable gratitude as having indulged in a thought-provoking film well made, their faith energized as they ponder on soul-stirring applications to their life.
Perhaps there’s a Roland Barthes parallel here. The death of the author comes after a piece of work is written, for it has reached its destination. Now it’s the reader’s turn to interact and give it meaning. Maybe it is so with film as well. As the director completes his production, it is given a new state of being when it is screened. As viewers interact with it, interpreting and extracting personal meaning, appreciating those elements that strike a chord with their own life experiences, they’re giving life to it in the cinema of their minds.