19 February 2017

I Gotta Have Faith

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To quote the great Woody Allen, “to you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the loyal opposition”. It was therefore with great anticipation that I went to see Martin Scorsese's latest film Silence which deals with God's seemingly never-ending decision to stay mute in spite of his followers' needs. I was talking to a Christian friend of mine once, when I asked him some of the more cliched questions regarding his religion- “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, “How insecure must a super-being be to create an ant-farm planet of humans that he insists must either worship him or spend an eternity in agonising damnation?”.. the usual bullshit. In every single case he confidently answered me with, “I don't know”, as though these things didn't bother him. Finally, I asked, “Why has nothing Bible related happened more recently than the time of the Bible? Since the invention of the camera, there's been no parting of the seas, no talking bushes, no booming voice from the sky...” It was at this point my religious friend lowered his head and with a defeated tone answered, “I don't know.. I just don't know.. but I wonder that all the time too”. He then went silent. “Right”, I thought, “My job here is done. I'm off for a fucking cheeseburger”.

Silence tells the story of two 17th Century Portuguese priests played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver who find out some horrible news. Not that their religious organisation is riddled with pedophiles and child-rape victims, but something much worse than that! Rumour has reached them that their old mentor Liam Neeson has travelled to Japan and somehow discovered some common sense, or as they say, “he's apostasized”. They decide to travel to Japan themselves in order to track him down and find out if it's true. The only catch is that Japan has literally no time for their bullshit religion, with an inquisitor dedicated to finding God's minions and either forcing them to denounce their megalomaniacal sky wizard or face torture and death instead. One of the ways in which the suspected Christians must prove their lack of faith is by stepping on a picture of Jesus's face, which proves surprisingly hard for them to do. If they pass that test but the inquisitor still isn't satisfied then they have to spit on an ornament of Jesus on the cross and call Mary “a whore”. Basically just the kind of thing us atheists to do relax on a Friday night I suppose. In fact, the first thing I did after the film was over was purchase myself a novelty Jesus door mat to clean your feet on in order to try and keep away any nuisance Jehovah witnesses. For the sake of balance, I'd get one of Muhammad too except, you know.. I'm not a fucking idiot.

Once the two priests arrive in Japan, they quickly discover quite how hostile things are and so find themselves quickly separated and hidden by the local villagers. From here the film essentially just follows Andrew Garfield in which he spends the bulk of his time having theological debates with everybody he bumps into whilst imagining that he himself might be a bit like Jesus. Of course we've all seen Garfield debate theology before, although this time it gets a little more in-depth than simply “with great power comes great responsibility”, although arguably that's what it all boils down to again. As such, the film touches upon everything from the nature of faith, man's responsibility to man, imperialism, and politics, with the whole thing ultimately hinging on the silence of God. Had I been hiding with Garfield in one of those villages I'd have been able to answer his question a lot more quickly than the film does, by simply suggesting, “It's coz he doesn't exist, mate. Now, would you like a fucking cheeseburger too?”. However due to the film's decision to not include my contemporary self in some Bill And Ted style time travel plot, the whole thing becomes a giant three hour chat instead. In fact, considering that the themes, and debating the themes of the movie, are prioritised over plot, you could probably just remake this movie as a Powerpoint presentation. At least you tend to get tea and biscuits with a Powerpoint presentation too!

Not that I'm saying I'd prefer the Powerpoint presentation, of course. Scorsese wildly holds back his usual kinetic style in favour of a quieter camera that allows the conversations to unfold much more naturally. As much as I love to see a bit of clip art in a presentation, I suppose nothing can really compare to the misty Japanese landscape as Scorsese pays tribute to the Kurosawa-esque mysticism of the country... except maybe that funny paper clip with eyeballs. Also, we get to see Andrew Garfield with messy hair and if that doesn't scream cinema then I don't know what does! Speaking of Garfield, the film has come under criticism for having him play a Portuguese character by speaking English with a Portuguese accent. It probably didn't help the matter that occasionally his accent would slip back into his regular one, either. A problem that was probably only made a little more confusing by Liam Neeson's decision to play a Portuguese man by speaking English with a very definitive Liam Neeson accent. Although fuck it.. if Christianity can depict their middle-eastern Jesus as a Robert Powell-esque white bloke for hundreds of years and get away with it then who really gives a shit, I suppose.

At just under three hours I'd by lying if I said that I didn't consider the film a bit of a slog to get through at times. When rifling through Scorsese's back catalogue, it certainly tests the patience a little more than the giggles you can have when watching him pop somebodies eye by squishing their head in a vice in Casino. However Silence was never less than interesting in the points that it raised and I was pleased to see the ambiguity of which it dealt with its conundrums. I took a lapsed Christian to see this movie and I was worried that the film was essentially going to be a propaganda machine that coached him back into dealing with denial. I once spent ninety minutes explaining to him about why the 'faith healing' he'd attended was actually one of the most evil and exploitative things around and I didn't want that time to go to waste. A religious person could watch this film and see it as a message of the power of faith as the characters remain devoted to their belief despite the pain inflicted on them. I however just see the trouble that religion can bring as Garfield's mission results in death, destruction, and anguish. At one point, an eagle flies past the priests to which Adam Driver announces, “It is a message from God”. Maybe a religious person would see that as being the point intended by the film. I however just see an eagle doing what eagles do, with the two priests simply clutching at straws and ignoring the term 'confirmational bias'.

Since Scorsese's very first film back in 1967, there has been a strong theme of Catholicism in pretty much all of his movies. Scorsese himself even wanted to be both a priest and a missionary when growing up, before finding himself drawn to filmmaking in which he could still profit from telling fictional stories. As such, I have nothing but admiration for the man and the way in which he's made an unbiased movie that expresses the comforts and contradictions that faith has left him with throughout his life. The friend that I took to see this film with me once asked his vicar if I could have his email address because I had a few questions for him. “Absolutely” the vicar responded. “They might not be the easiest questions” my friend warned him. “Oh..” said the vicar, “In which case I'd rather he didn't have my email address after all then”. That's a true story. As an atheist I can't help but assume that most religious people have to ignore a lot of evidence to the contrary, hypocrisies, or just out-and-out bullshit in order to maintain their faith. In which case, I applaud Scorsese for addressing the issues in such a great looking and in depth movie. Like the Romans did with Jesus, I'd have to say that Scorsese really nailed his subject! Thanks for reading, motherfuckers, and see you next time.