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Martin Scorsese and World Cinema Martin Scorsese and World Cinema
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-11-16 07:40:13
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After founding the Film Foundation in the United States in 1990, two years ago (2007) in Cannes Martin Scorsese launched his World Cinema Foundation with the purpose of preserving and restoring neglected film treasures from around the world; in other words, save world cinema. His is nothing less than a mission for international understanding via cinema.

He is backed in this enterprise by an advisory board of prominent directors, including the three Mexicans who have become the toast of Hollywood since they garnered 16 Academy Award nominations; namely, Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel") and Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men").
The choice of Cannes as the place to launch this international cinema enterprise is significant for Scorsese. It was here at the French Riviera Film Festival of 1976 that he won his first recognition as a movie director by winning the Palme D’or award for his movie “Taxi Driver,” starring Robert De Niro. It took three more decades before he won an Oscar for best picture and best director of the movie The Departed.

Scorsese is convinced that to stay only with Hollywood and American pop culture is to stop growing as a genre. This is how he puts it: "I think as an American, you see all the American films, we feed upon our own culture in a way, and we just keep digesting it, re-digesting our own culture. After a while there's no return, there's no nourishment, there's no depth.”

When asked which international filmmakers he most admires he will usually begin with the Italian greats such as Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Franco Zeffirelli, Bernardo Bertolucci and Marco Bellocchio. He calls the period of postwar cinema in Italy a “very rich feast when it was a great time to be alive, the late '50s, early '60s, and loving the cinema ... I'd like the younger ones to know this is where I got sustenance from, besides the Hollywood cinema."

Scorsese, as if to emphasize this point of openness to other cultures is currently working on a story of Portuguese missionaries in 17th century Japan, partly filmed in Japan.  He thinks this story has lessons for America today. As he told the Associated Press last year, it "raises a lot of questions about foreign cultures coming in and imposing their way of thinking on another culture they know nothing about."

What is intriguing about this story is that it is based on a novel of historical fiction by a Japanese author, Shusaku Endo, who himself converted to Catholicism. The novel titled Silence was the recipient of the 1966 Tanizaki Prize and is considered Endo’s supreme achievement as well as one of the 20th century finest novels. It is written mostly in the form of a letter by its central character. Its theme is that of Silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity. The adversities which were actually endured by the converted Catholic Endo is that of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France and a debilitating tuberculosis.

If we survey the Wikipedia Encyclopedia we get this information on the novel itself: it is basically the story of a fictional Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan who endured persecution in the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) following the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion. The novel inspired Symphony no 3 Silence, composed in 2002 by Scottish musician James MacMillan.

It has also been the subject of extensive analysis. William Cavanaugh refers to the novel's "deep moral ambiguity" due to the depiction of a God who "has chosen not to eliminate suffering, but to suffer with humanity." Endo, in his book A Life of Jesus, states that Japanese culture identifies with "one who 'suffers with us' and who 'allows for our weakness'", and thus "With this fact always in mind, I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus”

And this is how the same encyclopedia renders the plot of the novel: young Portuguese Jesuit, Sebastião Rodrigues, is sent to Japan to succor the local Church and investigate reports that his mentor, Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira, has committed apostasy. (Ferreira is an actual historical figure, who apostatized after torture and later became a Zen Buddhist monk, and wrote a treatise against Christianity.) Fr. Rodrigues and his companion Fr. Francisco Garrpe arrive in Japan in 1638. There they find the local Christian population driven underground. Security officials force suspected Christians to trample on fumie, which are crudely carved images of Christ. Those who refuse are imprisoned and killed by anazuri (穴吊り), being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled. Those Christians who do step on the image in order to stay hidden are deeply shamed by their act of apostasy. The novel relates the trials of the Christians and increasing hardship suffered by Rodrigues, as more is learnt about the circumstances of Ferreira's apostasy. Finally, Rodrigues is betrayed by the Judas-like Kichijiro. In the climax, as Rodrigues looks upon a fumie, Christ breaks his silence: "Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often in Portugal, in Rome, in Goa and in Macau. It was not Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance to pain; nor was it a face with strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet [in the fumie] was sunken and utterly exhausted…The sorrow it had gazed up at him [Rodrigues] as the eyes spoke appealingly: "Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here."

The movie is due out next year. I for one am looking forward to seeing it. The intriguing question now is this: will a master film director who has transcended the Hollywood box without denigrating it, do justice to a master novelist who has also transcended the box of his Japanese culture without betraying it? Will Scorsese be able to portray the intense spirituality of the novel and the strife that it portrays between loyalty to a faith and loyalty to a culture? We will soon find out.



   
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