The Sound of Scorsese’s Silence

By Nick Olson

It’s been nearly a month since I finally saw Scorsese’s Silence, and what I remember most is the cry of cicadas and how crucial sound is to the film’s translation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel. The cicadas’ song is loud, and in Silence, they sound a sorrowful note.

We hear the cicadas and the crickets before we see anything onscreen. When the title screen appears, there is an abrupt cut to silence. The cue is helpful because we’ve learned to ignore most sounds, let alone nature’s song. Scorsese has much for us to see, but we’d better listen, too, or we may miss everything.

In any film there is a relationship between sound and silence. In Scorsese’s film the relationship is fundamentally theological: Does God speak?

The question is old, but in certain times and places God’s apparent silence seems deafening. My sense is that in America—in a culture where incessant distraction and consumption tramples the habit of being attuned to the cosmos—ours is a time when it’s easy to come to consider God silent. [Read more…]

The Eye Behind the Camera: Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson

image of a woman with her eye to a camera. to the right of her head are the words "camera person: a film by kirsten johnson" in yellow, white, and black narrow block type. When we first see the close-up of the dead bird on the ground, we wonder why. It’s only a few scenes later that we return to the site of the bird to see two young children, twin brother and sister, asking their mother and grandfather if they can go outside to bury the dead bird.

“I’ll put it underneath this rhododendron tree,” the grandfather tells them, “and that way it will cause the rhododendron tree to grow because it will fertilize it.”

He looks at his daughter—the twins’ mother—who is also the cameraperson, so it’s as if he’s looking at us. “What’s the word? Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt?”

In creating a non-linear montage of moments drawn from her work as a cinematographer during the last twenty-five years, Kirsten Johnson searches for some contiguous logic that can make sense of the seemingly disparate moments that have, in her words, most marked her.

The viewer will see many different countries via footage from twenty-four documentaries. One moment will be in the Bosnian Mountains, the next on New York City streets. We first become attuned to the montage as pattern because eventually we return to a particular subject we’d seen earlier; the first emerging motif is that Johnson has documented sites of great violence and death, especially in the aftermath when grief afflicts memory.

If pain and death are part of life’s tapestry, can the pattern be beautiful? [Read more…]

Arts and Faith Top 10 Films of 2016: Part 2 

Top 10 Banner Part 2Continued from yesterday. [Link to yesterday’s post here]

Here are the remaining five films in the Art and Faith Ecumenical Jury’s top ten films of 2016 list, as well as Honorable Mentions selected by each jury member:

5. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

Knight of Cups is as pure cine-poetry as it is still being released in theatres. Here we’re witness to a cold, sterile beauty, filled with wide-open spaces in L.A. bursting at the seams with negative space. The people who inhabit those spaces may as well be ghosts, ceasing to exist as soon as we glide past them, hovering on the periphery of Rick’s (Christian Bale) sphere of consciousness.

The film unfurls around Rick, a rich and famous screenwriter, in an existential struggle for him to come to terms with meaning in his life, shambling along like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Presented with Malick’s typical beauty, the film is incredibly rich, from using recurring visual motifs as grace notes and alliteration, to its symphonic swell that seems as if the film has tapped into the same sensory majesty of music.

The film plumbs the depths of Christian despair and hope, wrapped up in an all-encompassing personal story told without affect or confines of contemporary cinema.

—Josh Hamm, Cut Print Film


4. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)

There were several movies about Jesus in 2016, each of which tapped into a different genre—the detective work of Risen, the family road trip of The Young Messiah, the spiritual drama of Last Days in the Desert, the epic action of the Ben-Hur remake—but the first and arguably most interesting of the lot was this delightful send-up of 1950s Hollywood, which not only paid homage to a wide range of genres itself (musicals, Westerns, romances, and of course biblical epics) but raised fascinating questions about politics, theology, and the intersection thereof.

The scene where a studio chief asks a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi if his film’s depiction of Jesus “cuts the mustard” is as amusing as it sounds—and it is also one of the most surprisingly theological moments in any movie put out by a mainstream Hollywood studio this year.

—Peter T. Chattaway, FilmChat [Read more…]

Arts and Faith Top 10 Films of 2016: Part 1

Though the year of 2016 was a weighty year for politics and world events, it was also a great year for movies. The Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury of 2016 has compiled a list of ten excellent films we found to be especially noteworthy.

This year’s thirteen jury members include professors and pastors, professional film critics and passionate cinephiles, diverse in location and tradition, yet united through the Christian faith. Each member also chose one Honorable Mention, highlighting a personal favorite not included in the final list.

While last year’s list had a decidedly international flavor, this year’s list varies in genre and tone—the #10 film is a partially-animated documentary, while #1 is a cerebral sci-fi drama adapted from a short story.

No film on our list falls under the “faith-based” subgenre, yet many of these stories are decidedly Christian. Featuring Jesuit priests on a faith-testing mission in seventeenth century Japan, a Christian youth worker coaching a chess club in Uganda, and a Catholic Hollywood producer trying to save a filmic “tale of the Christ,” Christianity is a common thread.

These films both confront and affirm our faith; none are “easy” stories, and each invite spiritual contemplation and consideration. Yet it’s also worth noting that our list is quite mainstream. These are readily accessible films, ones you could find in a local theater or via streaming platforms.

Whether telling the inspiring true-life tales of overcoming agonizing trials, or ambitious and imaginative fictional narratives, this is a list of particularly challenging films. The Ecumenical Jury’s vision is “to challenge, expand, or explore what it means to specifically recommend a film for Christian audiences.”

The following accessible-yet-challenging films certainly fulfill that mission. Director’s names are in parentheses:

Still from film Tower. Image shows an animated image of a close up of a woman's face. She is crying and looking upwards, presumably lying on the ground.

10. Tower (Keith Maitland)

In a year of excellent documentaries—Cameraperson, The Witness, O.J: Made in AmericaTower is a film of immense emotional heft. The film serves as a formal exercise in collective memory, a memorial recording both the horrors of human depravity as well as the redemptive courage that can emerge out of such horrors. Brisk yet meditative, this animated documentary is a paradox and a parable playing out on screen, both in its narrative and formal elements.

In retelling the tragic mass shooting which occurred on the campus of the University of Texas in August of 1966, Tower focuses not the violence and terror, rather it emphasizes the humanity of the victims as they recall that day. The film’s rotoscoping aesthetic at once distances the audience from the events—we are seeing animations of actors portraying what happened on that day in 1966—and allows for an empathetic depth that might not have been possible through typical documentary formats.

It’s a real-life Good Samaritan parable and an ethical Rorschach test, a “what would you do to help a stranger?” in such a dire and urgent situation.

Joel Mayward, Cinemayward [Read more…]

Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents

two nuns walking through an empty alleyway into light.After World War II devastated eastern Europe, the Red Army pushed into the countries allotted to them as spoils, such as Poland. There, they continued the destructive work that the Nazis had begun. Among those hardest hit were the women religious of Warsaw.

French Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac, sent to find and repatriate the French who were still in the Polish countryside, discovered that whole convents of nuns had been gang raped by pillaging Russian soldiers. Some of the women were molested thirty to fifty times each. Unsurprisingly, a good number died in the process, and those who survived often fell pregnant. Lives of avowed purity were changed forever into lives of violent desecration.

Pauliac, who herself died in an automobile accident while still on duty in Poland, wrote of these women in her diary. That work formed the inspiration for Anne Fontaine’s 2016 film, The Innocents. The movie provides a careful, respectful, and convincing portrayal of the emotional array that comprises such a tragedy. For nuns do not stop being women when they take the veil, nor are women who have not consecrated their lives to God any less called to the courage that nuns must possess. [Read more…]