Most faith-based Christian films released into theaters fall into the category of micro-budget persecution fables populated with D-list actors; think cinematic abominations like God’s Not Dead. These are films exclusively for preaching to the choir as it were, and they are built for audiences that pay little to no attention to things like subtlety, craft, or competent production values. Instead, they are first and foremost about messaging, specifically echoing the evangelical views of their audiences and providing a narrative that allows them to be the victims that they so wish they could be in real life.
This has not always been the case. Films dealing with explicitly Christian themes and stories used to be one of Hollywood’s most profitable sub-genres, with religious epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments finding both critical and financial success in their day. This last year saw two expensive, widely released films from major studios that are almost throwbacks in their unabashed embrace of Christian material, Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.
Coincidentally, both of the films directors are devout Catholics known for their unflinching cinematic violence, both films star Andrew Garfield as a man of very vocal faith, and both films feature Garfield traveling to Japan under life-threatening circumstances. Despite these surface similarities, the films diverge wildly in terms of tone, style, and thoughtfulness. It is in these differences, though, that we can illuminate not only the stark contrast between these two filmmakers, but also two fundamentally opposed approaches to films about faith.
Neither Scorsese nor Gibson is a stranger to Christian themes in their work. Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was a cultural phenomenon, and remains one of the most successful independently financed films of all time. And, on a certain level, all of Gibson’s films are about Christ-figures, heroic men who suffer for a greater good. Scorsese, on the other hand, has repeatedly been a target of religious censorship, despite his boyhood aspirations of the priesthood. His adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ led to boycotts and public demonstrations, while his biopic of the Dalai Lama, Kundun, caused enough turmoil with Disney’s Chinese business partners that the film has still not been released on Blu-ray in America.
Though both men share the same religion, they come from two very different strains of Catholicism. Scorsese, as has been well-documented in his films, comes from a family of Italian-American immigrants and was raised in a neighborhood in New York’s Little Italy in which his Catholicism, his Italian-American identity, and his love of cinema blossomed and intermingled. Mel Gibson was raised in Australia and brought up according to the strict traditionalist Catholic dogma of his father, former Jeopardy champion and vocal conspiracy theorist, Hutton Gibson. The difference in background is crucial to understanding these films, because it is key to understanding these men, how they approach faith and how that faith informs their art.
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Silence, adapted from the novel of the same name by Japanese Catholic Shūsaku Endo, tells the story of Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Seventeenth Century Portuguese Jesuit who, along with a fellow priest (Adam Driver), must travel into a hostile Japan to find his mentor, Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson), who’s rumored to have apostatized during Japanese purges of Christian missionaries. Rodrigues’s time in Japan takes him on an episodic, Conrad-ian journey into the depths of human suffering and the darkness of his own soul, forcing him to contend with God’s silence throughout. It is, in other words, a story of a faith pushed to its absolute limits both from exterior forces and within one man’s own heart.
Hacksaw Ridge also sees a man’s faith under attack, but entirely from outside forces, and often ones of his own making. The film tells the true story of Private First Class Desmond Doss (once again, Andrew Garfield), the first and only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor in WWII. Doss, who was raised as a strict Seventh Day Adventist, enlisted in the Army despite pacifist religious beliefs that prevent him from even holding a gun.
The first half of the film portrays Doss’s various adversities in Army training as his peers and superiors strongly suggest taking up arms or completely dropping out. In response, Doss chooses a court-martial over a weapon at base training. He beats the rap and is sent to Japan as a combat medic during the battle of Okinawa. While overseas, Doss saves the lives of dozens of soldiers at the titular ridge and earns the respect of his fellow enlisted men. The soldier’s steadfast refusal to compromise his beliefs earns him commendations and admiration. That synopsis, though, does not do justice to what’s going on beneath the film’s surface, which is where we find the chief distinctions between Silence and Hacksaw Ridge, specifically their portrayals of faith and of violence.
Let’s start with the latter.
In Silence, violence takes the form of imprisonment and torture of Christians, a common scene throughout the film’s two hour and forty-five minute runtime. However, unlike much of the violence in Scorsese films, the torture lacks forced aestheticism. Scorsese’s compositions are beautiful, but plaintive and detached compared to the pugilistic theatrics of Raging Bull. Characters sometimes die suddenly, surprising the viewer with both swiftness and senselessness. We stew, not in the moment of violence, but in the feeling of confusion and emptiness following tragedy. The composition invites contemplation and rumination, often through the perspective of Father Rodrigues, who is frequently forced to watch helplessly as others suffer on his behalf.
Death is not the crux of the drama. In one scene, we watch a character drown so quickly and without fanfare that the scene’s sole clarity comes only through Rodrigues’s anguish. In another sequence, we see a man decapitated after a long sequence of coercion and dread. We watch the sequence, like Rodrigues, anticipating the worst–an almost inevitable moment of violence. When the blade is unsheathed, though, we see and sense a brief moment of calmness. The violence itself is clinical and detached, and the true locus of suffering comes in the aftermath.
Hacksaw Ridge takes a different approach in conveying human suffering and oppression. Before the scenes in Japan, Hacksaw Ridge features almost no violence. It instead concerns itself with a rather hokey, wholesome persecution narrative taken right from the Christian filmmaking playbook. Once Doss gets to Japan, though, the film takes a jagged turn into one of the goriest action spectacles this side of Saving Private Ryan. In that film, Spielberg’s unflinching violence and hyper-realist aesthetic attempted to thread a needle by depicting both the unimaginable horrors of D-Day and the heroic actions of the men landing on that beach. Gibson’s violence, while similarly graphic and gorgeously directed, is much more confusing in the context of Hacksaw Ridge’s intended themes.
How do we interpret a film that heralds the courage of a man’s commitment to pacifism while featuring a scene of a soldier using a comrades torso as a shield? How do we reconcile that the film makes a point to mention that Doss saved Japanese soldiers along with Americans and features a portrayal of the Japanese army that echoes WWII propaganda in its depiction of them as inhumanly cruel and utterly devoid of agency? And how do we make peace with the fact that the film portrays Doss’s pacifism as a suppression of his own violence without once mentioning how that might contribute to his decision to join the army?
Rarely has a film intended to elevate and lionize a pacifist so thoroughly aestheticized its violence–except for maybe The Passion of the Christ.
For Gibson, faith is inextricably entwined with the physical pain one endures in the name of faith. His protagonists are Christ figures, but not because of their dogma or their divinity, but in their willingness to be sacrificed. Despite the specifics of Gibson’s faith, the actual beliefs to which these characters ascribe is secondary to the fact that they suffer for them. For Braveheart’s William Wallace, it is a belief in a free and independent Scotland. Wallace fights for his belief, but he does not achieve transcendence until tortured, crying out “Freedom” with his last strained breath. For Jesus, the suffering is ostensibly for the immortal souls of all men, and, as he is Gibson’s favorite martyr, suffering constitutes the entirety of Jesus’s story. Finally, for Desmond Doss, it is wholesome triumvirate of God, country, and family for which he suffers. Doss’s logical and moral contrivance trump a soldier’s greatest honor, bravery, which he showed on the grounds of Okinawa.
Gibson’s work suggests that faith is meaningless without the validation of physical sacrifice. His characters find transcendence in suffering; their souls become washed clean by their own spilt blood. In Hacksaw Ridge, the most powerful shot is the moment when Doss faces physical harm while saving fellow soldiers from a pulled grenade. In the film’s final shot, the wounded Doss–Bible clutched over his heart–is lowered down from a ridge. The camera first hovers over his body, showing a classic pose of divine suffering, before swooping down below him to reveal him cloaked in an almost heavenly light.
There is no beauty in suffering for Scorsese. Scorsese is more enthralled by a brutalized body moving through cinematic space or the semiotic and cinematic possibilities of a gun than actual infliction of pain. When he chooses to make the pain the focal point, it is brutal, visceral, and utterly senseless. Even in his most spiritual works, Scorsese’s characters do not find transcendence or enlightenment in suffering.
On the contrary, the senseless cruelty of the world is the greatest impediment to his characters’ faiths. Even Jesus Christ himself, when lured to abandon his cross in The Last Temptation of Christ, succumbs to the weakness of his human form and (temporarily) abdicates his messianic destiny. There is no glory or glamour in martyrdom for Scorsese, and those who betray their spirit to prevent pain deserve pity and sympathy, not scorn.
We are told early in the Silence that Japan has purged the country of Christian priests by torturing them until they either apostatize or die. We are also told that many of them gladly accept this opportunity to show the strength of their faith. By the time Father Rodrigues arrives, the Japanese have taken a different approach. Instead, suspected Christians are asked to abdicate their faith publicly by stepping on a graven image of Christ, under penalty of imprisonment or death. Many refuse and are dispatched with little fanfare. When a priest is captured, though, he is neither tortured nor killed. Instead, the Japanese force him to watch the torture of other Christians until he chooses to apostatize. He must weigh his own faith against the lives of others. For men who have devoted their lives to the church, it is an impossible choice and one that is intended to reveal the arrogance and hypocrisy at the root of their evangelism.
The Jesuits who enter Japan are arrogant. They are sincere in their faith and preach love and kindness wherever they roam, but their words come with a certainty in universal truth that transcends all limitations. The Jesuits share the delusion of free-range with many colonizers. In Silence, drama generates from their arrogance being worn down and disillusionment setting in.
Desmond Doss (as he is portrayed in Hacksaw Ridge) also shows arrogance. He draws incredibly specific–but philosophically contradictory–moral lines in the sand and expects the world’s accommodations. He dismisses acquaintances who reasonably ask, “Why would you join the army if you refuse to even hold a gun?” However, the only thing more unwavering than Doss’s faith is the film’s insistent adulation of him.
Fundamentally, both films feature a man’s challenge with faith, but the nature of the challenge sets these films apart. In Hacksaw Ridge, those that stand in Doss’s way are straw men, sneering cyphers that function only to oppose Doss’s resolve, not articulate any meaningful challenge to his perspective. In Japan, the film doubles down on this with a portrayal of Japanese soldiers that completely dehumanizes them. Even the few Japanese soldiers that Doss saves function only as props to illustrate Doss’s almost divine decency. This is because the film is not really engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation about faith, simply a lecture about the unstoppable power of one man’s stubbornness.
Silence is much more of a dialogue, a discourse between forces of equal stubbornness and certainty. When Rodrigues is brought before the incongruously cheery and loquacious Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), the two men debate everything from the nature of truth to the colonialist underpinnings of Christian missions, likening European missionaries’ persistence to “the love of an ugly woman” and Christianity to “a wife that can bear no children,” at least in Japan. Even though this is the same man who has overseen the torture of dozens of Christians, he has depth and makes salient points; it is not so simple that he represents evil and Rodrigues good. His methods are unspeakable, yet his perspective is understandable.
What do these films tell us about their filmmakers? Scorsese, ever the scholar, crafted a film that borders on monastic in its rumination on the nature of faith, but Scorsese clearly places the idea of faith in a realist context. There is a beauty and a strength to faith, yes, but it is only natural to question that faith when life seems chaotic and senseless. Scorsese’s humanistic impulses supersede his adherence to dogma, and thus produces works of great thoughtfulness and few easy answers. When Rodrigues eventually submits to his captors and apostatizes, Scorsese treats Rodrigues not with scorn, but pity. As with many of Scorsese’s protagonists, Rodrigues is put in an impossible position and does what he must to survive.
Gibson, for all of his gifts as a visual storyteller and a conductor of large-scale thrills, is a zealot first and foremost. For him, the ultimate triumph of a man is unquestioned adherence to dogma, even (and especially) under threat of misery and death. There is no discourse because Gibson isn’t meaningfully challenging his audience; he’s simply testing our endurance for pain. His rhetorical strategies are bludgeoning to the point of audience flagellation, highlighting a disparity between his self-righteous moral instruction and well-documented personal failing not seen since D.W. Griffith. He is at once sadistic and masochistic, orchestrating and inflicting carnage on his characters and audiences so that he, too, may feel that pain. He is a gorehound who aspires to be a holy man. Seemingly ashamed of his own predilection toward violence in his work, he wields that violence wantonly in service of stories that deify those that suffer through them, giving the violence a greater, almost holy function in his work.
Scorsese, despite his reputation for cinematic bloodshed, never conflates violence and faith. For Scorsese, violence does not bring us closer to God; it only amplifies his silence. Scorsese attempts to honestly reckon with that silence, while Gibson simply hopes to drown it out with smug certainty and the cacophony of human misery.
Thanks again for returning to read the new issue! We’ve got a fantastic and wide-ranging array of writing for you this month.
Reed Brewer writes about his first time seeing The Big Short, and the conversations about the financial crisis it sparked with his mother. Meredith Morrison also joins Reed for a “Side By Side” discussion about the film Mississippi Burning and the questions it raises in today’s political and social environment. Andrew also returns with the first in an eight part series of articles on Peter O’Toole and the eight times the Academy denied him an Oscar; the first film he looks at is My Favorite Year.
In this month’s “Gaming w/Nick,” Nick Daily looks back on Banjo-Kazooie and watching beloved games grow old. Hannah Popkin contributed this month’s “Close Reading,” where she dissects a few key scenes from Jiang Wen’s brutal Devils on the Doorstep. This month’s “Panda Collection” inductee is also brought to us by Lance St. Laurent, as he delves into Hal Ashby’s Being There. And in “So I Watched An Episode Of…,” Rane Peerson returns to talk about Undergrads, a little-known cartoon that helped him a great deal when he left home for college.
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