The Silence of God in Japan

I saw the adverts for this film when I was in London in December 2016. Liam Neeson’s gloomy figure dominated the posters which described the film in glowing terms that certainly made me want to watch it.

But if you, like me, thought Neeson would play a big part in Silence you would be wrong. His character is integral to the plot and indeed forms the very reason for the action. But Neeson appears only briefly at the beginning and then at the very end of this two-hour-forty-minute film by Martin Scorsese. The main action revolves around the characters Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who gives an excellent performance), and Garupe (Adam Driver).

The story is set in 17th Century Japan. Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Catholic priest, had gone to Japan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then was rumoured to have apostasised. Rodrigues and Garupe do not believe this about their former mentor and set out for Japan to find him and prove the rumours false. What follows is a tale of extreme hardship and religious persecution.

When the pair arrive in Japan they are welcomed with open arms by the few Christians there, but are kept hidden for their, and the local Christians’ safety. Authorities get wind of their arrival, track them down and take them captive. From here the story follows Rodrigues, with Garupe featuring only on the periphery.

The Japanese authorities are shown in Silence as patient, clever, effective and cruel in their relentless efforts to persuade the Christians (priests and locals alike) to apostasise. For these authorities it was not simply a matter of getting Christians to conform outwardly. They wanted their hearts to change too. Manipulation, torture and killing all form part of their methods. And these methods create in their victims intense psychological conflict as they struggle not to betray the God of their faith. As the story progresses the audience begins to sympathise with the apostasisers (one slimy character apostasises and then seeks absolution several times).

In a haunting moment in the film, just as Rodrigues is about to give in, the voice of God speaks to Him. Without giving too much away, this moment, and the closing scenes of the film highlight what is portrayed as the ambivalent nature of apostasisation and how this act would not necessarily be the end for the Christian.

The title ‘Silence’ is meant to indicate God’s silence during these Christians’ struggles.

Silence is an intense, thought-provoking film, covering an era I knew very little about. It’s worth watching, but is long and may attract a limited audience only. It opens in cinemas in South Africa on 21 April 2017.

Read the history behind Silence here.

 

Beauty and the Beast: A Traditional Tale

A few years ago I watched the play The Cripple of Inishmaan with a friend in London. The play starred Daniel Radcliffe, who most people will know as the titular character in the Harry Potter film series.  In The Cripple of Inishmaan, Harry Potter was nowhere to be seen and Radcliffe gave a very good performance.

Radcliffe’s co-worker in Harry Potter was Emma Watson who played Harry’s friend Hermione Granger. Watson now appears in a Disney re-creation of Beauty and the Beast, due for release in cinemas on 14 April. During the film, in which Watson sings beautifully, I found myself constantly comparing Belle to the young, wild-haired girl of Hogwarts. As Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Watson speaks with the same perfect elocution as she did in Harry Potter, and shows the same half smile as young Hermione did.

How interesting then that in this film the character Belle has a coming-of-age experience (not from Hermione you understand!), maturing from a young girl into a woman, but still retaining certain essential characteristics. This version of the story explains that both Belle and the Beast (Dan Stevens) are who they are because of their parentage; Beast self-centred and angry, Belle considerate and creative. And it is Belle who helps Beast become his better self, in a story that prizes love and goodness above selfishness and evil.

Beast’s servants – all turned into talking furniture because of a curse – and the townsfolk of Belle’s village, provide the humour in the story. They also prevent Beauty and the Beast from becoming an all-out good versus evil story by showing that we are all capable of good or evil depending on circumstances and force of character.

The special effects, costumes and setting are good to watch and the music is enchanting. But there was something of a ‘same-old, same-old’ feeling in this fairly faithful rendition of the original story. After Shrek, which turned fairy tales on their heads, declaring them a ‘load o’ …’, it’s hard to go back to the traditional stories.

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 2

Part 2

In Part 1 I reviewed two books: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly and Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy. Perhaps it’s a matter of classification. A reader will know that when he/she is reading an historical novel that it is part-fact, part-fiction. He/she will accept the ‘suspension of disbelief’ (a theatre term) and enter willingly into the story. Author notes or history books may confirm which parts of the story are factual. If movies were categorised like books are (that is, for example, non-fiction, fiction, historical fiction) would the viewer approach movies with a similar acceptance of their levels of historical truth, as readers do books? Would they enter the ‘suspension of disbelief’ with discernment, knowing that what they are watching is a mixture of fact and fiction? At current modes of film classification (action, thriller, drama and so on), perhaps the viewer doesn’t have sufficient guidelines that what they are watching is part creation, part historical fact. But I’m being generous. Perhaps the bottom line is that we as moviegoers are so dumb that we gullibly accept as truth whatever is simply flashed across the screen at us. And we need experts like Von Tunzelmann to put us straight.

Certainly in the current climate in which ‘fake news’ is, well, making the news, learning to be discerning viewers is an important skill. And this is the vein in which I think Von Tunzelmann’s Reel History book/column could be taken. A tool to help us see when important aspects of history in movies may be inaccurately portrayed. Becoming overly pedantic about what’s true or false in movies, though, is to take away from this media’s main purpose: that of entertainment. I think Von Tunzelmann’s book inadvertently highlights this as well: that movies are NOT purveyors of truth. They are about entertainment.

 

Movies and Novels: Fact or Fiction, Fake News or Entertainment? Part 1

Part 1

I listened to a book on Audible recently called Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. It’s a novel set in World War II and beyond and covers the stories of three very different women. One is an American actress-cum-socialite-cum-charity-fundraiser called Caroline. The other is a Polish victim of Hitler’s only concentration camp for women, Ravensbruck. Her name is Kasia. And the third is a German doctor who conducted experiments on Polish prisoners like Kasia at Ravensbruck. Her name is Herta. Kelly’s description of the medical experiments the Polish ‘rabbits’ underwent is gruesome. These particularly unfortunate prisoners were called rabbits because of the experimental nature of the operations that were conducted on them, and because they were forced to hop instead of walk after the procedures that affected their limbs.

Caroline’s involvement with the prisoners came into effect largely after the war ended. She helped secure medical treatment in America for these ‘rabbits’ and also helped to have Herta’s medical licence revoked. After the war Herta had initially been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for war crimes, but served only five years. After her release she began practising medicine again until a former Polish prisoner recognised her (in the book this is Kasia) and brought this fact into public knowledge.

Kelly’s account is deeply personal and riveting. And I highly recommend the book for its gripping nature and its important contribution to making certain historical accounts known. The author explains in a lengthy Autor’s Note how she composed the story, and which parts are fact and which a work of her creative imagination. For instance, Caroline’s romance with a French actor is fiction. And Kasia is a composite character of a number of like women at Ravensbruck.

Another book I’ve read recently, this time on Kindle, is Reel History by Alex Von Tunzelmann. Von Tunzelmann wrote a regular column for The Guardian entitled Reel History. In it she reviewed movies, commenting mainly on their historical accuracy. This book is a compilation of many of those reviews. In her reviews the author was at pains to separate fact from fiction and rated the films according to their historical accuracy and entertainment value. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, for instance, is given an entertainment grade of C- and a history grade of: fail. Yes, that surprised me. I’m no historian and I must bow to the superior knowledge of Von Tunzelmann, an historian. When it comes to entertainment, apart from Von Tunzelmann’s grading, her writing style itself is witty and very entertaining. She says of Braveheart, ‘Tremendously lauded at the time of its release and showered with five Oscars – including Best Picture – it is, historically speaking, one of the daftest films ever made.’ I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it, especially to people interested in the historical accuracy of films. Pointing out historical inaccuracies, particularly in a film that won Oscars, is valuable.

Part 2 to follow on 7 April 2017: When I compare the two media of storytelling – novels and filmmaking – I have to wonder, though, why films come in for more criticism than do books for lack or otherwise of accuracy…

Money, Monkeys and Serendipity

Serendipity is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.

This is something I experienced on a recent trip to the UK. And then again when I returned to my home. Both after some, shall we say, trying circumstances.

In a wintry December London, my daughter and I set off from our residence to visit two museums in the centre of the city. After walking 15 minutes to the underground train station daughter realised she didn’t have her travel card with her. While she was contemplating spending her last pounds on an expensive day ticket I popped into the WH Smith to buy a magazine and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. Now we were in a quandary. Putting our loosely screwed heads together we debated what to do, when – serendipitously – my son-in-law arrived at the station on his way to work. After hearing our pathetic story he opened his very thin wallet, preparing to give us his meagre spare change, when – serendipitously – I happened to glance over at an ATM machine just two metres away from us. There, lying on the ledge of the machine was a ten pound note. Honestly. The previous customer must have accidentally dropped it after drawing money. And there it was. In our moment of need. But we hesitated. Well, daughter and I did. If we took it wouldn’t that be – er – stealing? Son-in-law had no such qualms. He gave us his change, picked up the ten pound note and went on his way. And we, happily, resumed our journey to the museums.

Fast forward a month or so and I was back in South Africa enjoying my mum’s matchless Christmas cake. This cake is made and given to me every year after many weeks of hard work and bottles of brandy. I love it. Unfortunately, so does my husband. I have begged and pleaded with mum to make us our own cake each but she refuses. And so, after 25 years of marriage I have devised a way of dealing fairly with this issue. I cut the cake exactly in half and each half goes into a separate tin, one half for each of us. Neither of us is allowed to touch the other’s cake after that. One afternoon I was working away in my home office when I heard a commotion. I ran through to the kitchen and there was a large monkey helping himself to (my husband’s) Christmas cake. Honestly. It opened the tin and then – when it saw me bearing down on it yelling and waving my arms – it took off with the cake and vanished through the back door. I couldn’t believe it. The precious Christmas cake was gone. I couldn’t possibly tell mum about it. Two minutes later husband arrives home and I start telling him how a monkey just stole his cake when I realise that – after our tense history – he must think I was lying. That I must have scoffed his cake and then pretended that a monkey stole it.

Obviously playing on my mind, a couple of hours later, eager to venerate myself, I went out the back door to check if, by any chance, the cake was anywhere. And there – serendipitously – lying on the roof was husband’s Christmas cake. The monkey was gone. I was so excited I leapt up on a plastic bin nearby, promptly putting my foot straight through the lid. Limping off with the lid stuck around my limb I found a ladder, climbed up sensibly and retrieved the – largely unharmed – cake. I gave it a quick dash under the tap and trimmed off all the sides and put it back in the tin. All was happily restored.

I’m not sure why the monkey dropped the cake. Perhaps it was too heavy to carry far. Or maybe the Vervet didn’t like brandy. Whatever, I know that with only teetotalling, lightweight monkeys around the only competition I have for the cake is inside the house.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is an Absurd Catch 22

Image: supplied by Ster Kinekor

When I looked up John Wick: Chapter 2 on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) the rating for this film was 8.2. ‘Ooh,’ I thought, ‘it must be good.’

After seeing this ‘action, crime, thriller’ I was less enthusiastic and thought I’d investigate how the IMDb rating system works. This is a statement on their website:

Weighted Average Ratings

IMDb publishes weighted vote averages rather than raw data averages. Various filters are applied to the raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at vote stuffing by people more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it.

The exact methods we use will not be disclosed. This should ensure that the policy remains effective. The result is a more accurate vote average.

 Votes are posted to IMDb by viewers and quite detailed viewer demographics are listed on the site. And when I looked it up the critic reviews’ metascore was listed as 75 for John Wick: Chapter 2 (compared at the same time to, for instance, Trainspotting T2’s rating at 7.8 and metascore at 62).

I was pleased to see that the critic reviews ranged from as low as 40 (Trainspotting’s lowest was 50). Pleased because I loathed this movie. Knowing now how the IMDb system works I feel free to state with a clear conscience that I am not trying to ‘stuff’ up the votes. I am simply adding my own (very low) vote to the others’.

In this film John Wick (played by a toneless Keanu Reeves) has exited a criminal organisation (something like the Italian mob) but is handed a ‘marker’ that forces him to re-enter it. He is tasked with killing one person, and slays a whole lot of others in his getaway attempt. He does this using stashed arms and fighting off baddies who conveniently attack him one at a time. Wick’s killing of the target enacts a ‘marker’ on his head in return and so this catch 22 cycle (unfortunately) continues. I was very sad to see that Chapter 2 may easily give way to Chapter 3.

JW2_D43_3034.cr2

Image: supplied by Ster Kinekor

The phrase ‘Catch 22’, incidentally, was created by Joseph Heller who published a book by the same name in 1961. Catch 22 means ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’, something Heller’s American army characters experience over and over again in his story. Shortly before watching John Wick: Chapter 2 I listened to Catch 22 on Audible. The narration was brilliant and the story was cleverly written in a style that resembled catch 22 itself. It was ridiculously funny in parts and this humour belied the atrocities – and pointlessness – of war. So, entertainment and food for thought there. I found the style so frustrating, however, that it was hard to keep going (I don’t know how the author did). But then again, that may be what Heller was trying to achieve.

I think viewers are supposed to see John Wick: Chapter 2 as entertaining (and clearly from the IMDb votes many people did) and to admire this clever assassin. I just found the whole thing ridiculous and pointless. No food for thought there.

 

Speeding Around New York City

‘Quick, only ten seconds to get across the intersection,’ said my husband to me over his shoulder. And there we were, at it again, chasing the lights on foot from West 43rd Avenue to 5th Avenue and our destination: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Haring around Manhattan’s very long blocks for the past day or so had proved to be good exercise, but exhausting too. ‘The countdown on the pedestrian traffic light isn’t a challenge,’ I protested in my effort to slow him down, ‘it’s just a warning.’

‘But if we keep moving we’ll stay warm.’ He did have a point; strolling in 1

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

degree Celsius temperatures would have been chilly. Nevertheless, I was grateful when, on this occasion, we decided to catch a bus most of the way. The trip, which cost 75 cents each (in exact cash, no change given), took us along Madison Avenue. The bus driver and a helpful passenger were attentive in their directions, telling us which stop to get off at, and I enjoyed looking at the big fashion houses as we travelled along. The Met is in an imposing building that looks onto Central Park. In fact the uncluttered view of the snowy park from the coffee shop in the museum echoed the clean and spacious layout of the exhibits and felt like it was one of the framed displays.

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

We made it across the Met’s threshold at

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

10.30am, just in time to join the free ‘Highlights Tour’. Entry fee to the museum is actually discretionary, a ‘suggested’ amount of $25 per adult (quite expensive when you consider the number of huge, free museums there are in other major cities). The one-hour tour was delightful. It was a journey through different eras, continents and styles. I particularly enjoyed the guide’s explanation of a Congolese warrior ‘judge’ sculpture. She spoke of this ugly, aggressive-looking god statue with respect, explaining how effective it was as part of that ancient culture’s legal system. Her deferential tone was in contrast to the angry political ‘Trump’ rhetoric so evident in the newspapers and TV news broadcasts I had read and watched in our hotel room that morning.

Luckily for me there were no urgently flashing traffic signs in Central Park. And, so, after our museum visit, we slowed our customary gallop to a canter through the park, enjoying the squirrels, and the clumps of dogs herded by dog-walkers. We emerged further down 5th Avenue where we sped up again, hastening past Trump Towers with its barriers, policemen and photographers in attendance.

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels