Friday, January 27, 2017

Nosh 50: 'Silence,' 'Elle' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Silence and Elle

I put off seeing Martin Scorsese’s Silence, out of admiration for the novel by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Christian writer of great subtlety. And I didn’t really care to witness Scorsese, at 74, again scourging himself with his  whip of Catholic doubt and hope (its bloody drops sprinkle much of his work, most potently The Last Temptation of Christ). Endo’s book gave him “the kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art” – so attention is owed.

What is meditative and finely layered in Endo’s prose can easily become, on screen, a Stations of the Cross travelog. Silence, filmed in Taiwan, takes two Portuguese Jesuit priests into 17th century Japan, hoping to find their possibly faith-fallen mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, with terrific hair) and Garupe (magnetic, rodent-faced Adam Driver) find their spiritual ardor shaken by tiny villages of persecuted Christian converts. Japanese imperial authorities feel that their entire, insular world is at stake, and unlike Native Americans they have the best weapons. The history fascinates, but in its first half the film keeps repeating itself, grindingly. The hunted priests are almost buried by the pictorial grandeur of rugged coasts, mists and dark woods. Competing with great Japanese painters (and directors), Scorsese can’t win.

Silence gets richer when Garupe peels away and Rodrigues, hauled to the city for agonizing trials, must choose between martyrdom or saving simpler believers from torture and execution. One is a ragged God’s fool who keeps turning up like a terrier of guilt, demanding confession and absolution (mechanical Catholicism, dramatized emotionally). Scorsese sifts Endo’s fine grains of public and intimate faith, emphasizing the Jesus/Judas dichotomy and what “apostasy” means in this fierce context. Garfield, touchingly earnest, falls short of the nuances needed. Driver has a great look and voice, but not much of a role.

Liam Neeson appears, gaunt and haunted, like an Oskar Schindler without a cause. Oddly for such a wizard of film history, Scorsese doesn’t seem to mind that the crafty old Chief Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) has the grinning, playful sadism of the “beastly Japs” who tormented Yank prisoners in American WWII movies. Usually the suave creeps were played by Chinese-American actors – and now here is Taiwan, subbing for Japan!

Tending to make even torture seem grotesquely picturesque, Silence is still an imposing display of Scorsese’s mature skill and moral passion. Perhaps the most disturbing element is the frequent mention of Nagasaki, so that the old brutalities seem to foreshadow the deadly mushroom cloud of Aug. 9, 1945. Up to 80,000 died in the atomic blast, mostly civilians who never had the time for prayer or penance. (Footnote: today about 2% of Japanese are Christian.)

At 63 Isabelle Huppert is still svelte and feline. Her acting has often had the effect of a cool, smart kitty on the prowl. So it seems right that her brutal rape, which opens Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, is calmly observed by a cat. While viewing this movie, it might occur to you that the animal was transfixed by a lesser species: ours.

As a Frenchwoman no longer young but still a bonanza of erotic and predatory kinks, Huppert coughs up a virtual hairball of crypto-feminist sensationalism. Her Michele is a hybrid, both victim and dominatrix, wired for abuse but also ripe for sinister payback. Michele is attacked by the big, masked intruder four times during the story, and yet remains in her ground-floor flat with 20 windows and scarcely any security. She always rebounds quickly and seems almost unfazed, as if savoring a cruel sport.

Destined for elite sado-masochism, Michele was the daddy’s girl and disciple of an infamous serial killer, now dying in prison. She heads a company that makes video games full of erotic violence. With sinister blitheness, Michele seduces a friend’s husband, toys with her hapless son, torments her ex-husband and stokes the fantasies of her rapist, first seen as a cordial, Christian neighbor (the actor, handsome Laurent Lafitte, is “de la Comedie-Francaise” – not a very important honor in this particular context).  The story’s rampant perversity oozes suspicion and vicious betrayal. Although director Claude Chabrol poured some similar menace in his films, his did not arrive sour from the bottle.

Verhoeven, now 77, seems very eager to be again a top provocateur if not (quite) pornographer. But Elle is too loaded with glib, Franco-fishy ideas about family, gender and power to get him back to the pulp heat of his crude hits Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Although Huppert’s witty expertise oils the screws of manipulation, the story’s chic rot gains nothing from references to Medea, Beethoven, Simone de Beauvoir and Pope Francis. Pundits who preen for this ugly contraption are fooling themselves. The most honest scene in Elle is Michele’s cat, simply true to its nature, pouncing on a wounded sparrow.
SALAD (A List)
From my not very lofty perspective, these are the Twelve Best Films of Christian Religious Life (with date and director): The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc (C-T. Dreyer, 1928), The Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951), Monsieur Vincent (Maurice Cloche, 1947), The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959), The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950), Barabbas (Richard Fleischer, 1961), Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1948), Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2006), Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960), The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), Romero (John Duigan, 1989) and The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997).

Smaller blessings include Robert Morley in The African Queen (John Huston, 1951), Peter Sellers in Heavens Above! (John and Roy Boulting, 1963), Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (John Huston, 1957), Meg Tilly in Agnes of God (Norman Jewison, 1985) and John Hurt in Jackie (Pablo Larrain, 2016). 

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
New York drama critic Percy Hammond suddenly died soon after reviewing Orson Welles’s Macbeth in 1936. The production’s imported witch doctors had put a Haitian hex on him. Ten years later, when some critics denigrated his extravagant stage show Around the World in 80 Days (into which he poured most of his own money), Orson got cheeky on the radio: “My voodoo friends are still in New York. I can always get them together for a special event …. I’m not threatening you, I just thought I’d mention it.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles.)

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
In the 1960s, “movies got hip in a hurry, though today the laughs are lean in Barbarella, Candy, Cat Ballou, Enter Laughing, Expresso Bongo, Greetings, Head, Help!, The Knack, Lord Love a Duck, The Magic Christian, The Maltese Bippy, Morgan!, Pound, The President’s Analyst, Putney Swope, Watermelon Man and (the dead-worst) Casino Royale. Despite reserves of taste, Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel were not about to amen Sholem Aleichem’s declaration on arriving in America; “I will never permit myself to give in to American taste and lower the standards of art.’ Lows can be highs, and compared to most competition, The Producers was Beluga caviar.” (From the Zero Mostel/The Producers chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

In the Belgian Congo, Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) reveals a maternal instinct in The Nun’s Story (Warner Bros., 1959; director Fred Zinnemann, cinematographer Franz Planer).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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