TALKING FILMS

Martin Scorsese gives a Japanese tale the Hollywood treatment in ‘Silence’

To better understand the filmmaker’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan, read Roland Barthes.

In his writings on semiotics, cinema and philosophy, Roland Barthes studies the relationship between signs and myths and the corresponding links these have with reality. Barthes’s approach to an object and its code are more relevant than ever to Martin Scorsese’s Silence. The 17th century-set narrative centres on a priest, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who goes to Japan from Portugal to investigate the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The film maps Rodrigues’s struggles to establish Christianity in Japan, until he is forced to give up his own faith.

Adapted from the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Scorsese’s film gives Japanese literature the Hollywood treatment. The rarified and atmospheric narrative is transposed into point-to-point dramatic action, with theatrical performances taking the place of the mood-oriented approach on the page. Father Rodrigues’s search for Ferreira, who has committed apostasy, is deliverd a bit too literally instead of being demonstrated through the mise-en-scene. The film reduces narrative to actions and dialogue, always giving ready-made answers instead of constructing questions.

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Silence.

The film combines Scorsese’s two previous encounters with religion: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, both of which have religion at the centre. Scorsese, a believer himself, adapts a novel written in 1966 about the seventeenth century to contemporary times. Christianity is presented not as an issue, with conversion being the grey area, but as something to be practised in the present. However, Scorsese, in a nod towards Barthes, emphasises the irrelevance of any symbol of a religion (the Holy Cross in this case) over faith itself, as if to point to what Barthes may have called an empty signifier.

The director suggests that the image of the crucifixion has no link to faith, which for Scorsese constitutes an interiority that cannot be manifested in a sign. Rodrigues, for Scorsese, is forever one of those many Japanese Christians who can never betray Christianity.

The looming issue of interiority is carefully communicated through the treatment of space. Shot largely on location in Asia, Scorsese represents indoor spaces in the vast expanse of nature, instead of forcing the audience to encounter the chaotic vastness of the exteriors. This is best denoted by the shot of the sea taken from the interior of the cave: curated nature to suit Hollywood’s narrative trickery.

Nature, in turn, is linked to light, so that watching the film itself produces a novel engagement with every passing frame. Through light, resulting in images worthy of an Oscar nomination for cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese attempts a description of Japaneseness, one that emphasises the dainichi or the Japanese Sun God, eventually denoted by a frontal shot of the sun.

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Behind the scenes of Silence.

The problem with Scorsese’s film is that it has no grid on which to base its designed scenarios. Perhaps the veteran is attempting an Ozu-like sublime resonance in the repetitiousness of the shot-reverse shot sequences. However, his attempts at capturing light contradicts the Hollywood appropriated performances, making the film play out like an on-location stage production with elaborate steadycam movements. Scorsese seems to understand his own limitations: whereas he is a believer in a man-mad God, he is confronted by the vastness of divine nature before him as he shoots the film and engages the space of Endo’s motherland country, Japan.

The film makes suggestive use of colours, notably fire-bright orange, to represent light. The other notable colors are green (nature) and blue (the angry ocean). The collapse of symbols is denoted by the tracking shot into the Buddhist cremation in the finale , where the image tracks into pure light, removing all sense of theatricality. In the Buddhist coffin is apostatised Father Rodrigues holding the image of the cross: an empty signifier.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.