Talking Pictures

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2017, a spate of religion on film.

Posted by keith1942 on February 9, 2017


This year offers the centenary of The Great October Revolution. That seismic event was not only a strike against autocracy and international capital, but against religion: [Karl Marx’s quotation above is taken from  ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’). Sovkino produced a film from the Left Front of Arts in 1929, Opium, directed by Vitaly Zhemchuzhny and scripted by Osip Brik. Unfortunately the early omens for this year are poor as we have already had three films with a fairly strong religious component. Not surprisingly the films also centre around strong violence and at least two of them are rather poor in the representation of women.


The first that I saw was Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of a novel by Shûsaku Endô, Silence (USA, Taiwan, Mexico 2016). This follows two C17th  Jesuit missionaries as they travel secretly to Japan where the Christian religion is forbidden. The film does recognise the colonial aspects of western religious and trading expeditions to Japan. And the rationale of the Japanese is expressed by their characters, who I founds more interesting than the westerners. However, the film also represents Japanese society as excessively violent and autocratic under the surface formality. But there is a only a brief mention [by a Japanese character] of the violent dispossession that was already the central focus of European ventures into Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The narrative is presented through the letters of one of the missionaries and at the film’s end through the diaries of a Portuguese trader. Whilst one missionary dies, the other two [after torture][ recant their faith. However the resolution privileges an omniscient moment for the audience: a close-up of a religious object suggests that the recantations were only on the surface. A friend pointed out that this was a ‘Citizen Kane’ moment.

The torture used by the Japanese is extremely violent and there are some very strong sequences in the film. In Britain the film was given a 15 certificate and in the USA it was given an R certificate. The plot and focuses almost completely on male characters. The few women we see in the film are either members of a Christian flock or spouses, none are very developed as characters. The violence and the masculinity are the dominant themes in many of Scorsese’s films and I assume this is a reflection of the original novel. But the film at least does not offer a convincing explanation as to why C17th Japanese peasants would embrace a foreign religion at the cost of suffering and even their lives. Why the Japanese authorities would object to a foreign imposition is fairly clear. So the film concentrates on the viewpoint of the Westerners and the Japanese ruling class, with a far less adequate presentations of the viewpoint of ordinary Japanese.

The film is finely produced and executed. The cinematography, design, sound and editing are all excellent. And, fortunately and uncommonly, the film circulated here in a 4K DCP which did fair justice to the production values.

JACKIE (2016) John Hurt, Natalie Portman CR: Bruno Calvo

JACKIE (2016) John Hurt, Natalie Portman CR: Bruno Calvo

My second portion of religion was in Jackie (Chile, France, USA 2016). This is in part a biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy, following the contemporary conventions of homing in on one particular period and event: but it is also another film on the Kennedy legacy as the event in question is the assassination of J. F. Kennedy and the characters and actions around his funeral. The form of the film is an interview given by Jacqueline Kennedy (Wynona Ryder) sometime after the event to a journalist (Billy Crudup) and is inspired by an actual interview of the period. The film cuts between the interview and flashbacks to the assassination and subsequent actions leading up to the state funeral. There are also cuts to extracts from the famous tour of the White House given by Jacqueline Kennedy  for the CBS television channel and also to memories of Jacqueline of her times with Jack Kennedy.

I think one’s response to the film depends on how much one buys into the Kennedy legend. The film clearly does: we get songs from the Musical Camelot played on the soundtrack without any sense of irony. It struck me that the use of J.F.K. is an attempt to match the aurora of F.D.R. [Franklin D. Roosevelt] a comparison that exaggerates the significance of Kennedy.

The religion comes in the form of the Roman Catholic persuasion of Jacqueline and Jack Kennedy. It is personalised in the character of her confessor (John Hurt). There are several scenes where the grieving Jackie meets the priest in secret: just the security men accompany her. At one point there is a fairly veiled reference to Jack’s problems with the seventh and tenth commandments.

The recreation of the assassination in Dallas is very effective. And the subsequent scenes present Jackie resisting the manipulative treatment of the political elite round the White House: Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) finds the appropriate sympathy a difficult task. Bobby Kennedy ((Peter Sarsgaard) is the supportive brother-in-law, a lone male confidante. However, I was sceptical about how accurate the portrayals were. In one scene, on the plane flying the coffin and the party back to Washington, we see Jackie in the toilet wiping blood from her face. Her insistence on remaining in the pink but blood-stained outfit at that time is well recorded: but the blood seemed unlikely.

The film was shot on Super 16 and circulated in Britain on a 2K DCP. This was not really sufficient for the exhibition. Some long shots lacked definition, including one of Jackie and the unnamed journalist in an exterior, where neither was clearly defined. Even given the 16mm format this seemed inadequate. The earlier Carol (USA, UK, Australia 2015 ) was filmed on the same format and the definition on the DCP version of that was superior to this. The recreation of the CBS documentary is well done and it seems that Pablo Larrain [the director] and his cinematographer,  Stéphane Fontaine, used the same video camera that was used for the earlier No (Chile, France, Mexico, USA 2012 ).

However, my most serious problem with this film as the same as the earlier one by Larrain. Both films deal with historical events but both offer partial view of these. Essentially the view of those events is that of a bourgeois perspective. In the case of No, which details the referendum on the Junta government in Chile in 1988, it is the absence of any sense of the class struggle in Chile at the time. In Jackie it is the way the film buys in uncritically to the Kennedy legend when at the time that Presidency was involved in the usual neo-colonial activities of the USA; notably against the Vietnamese and Cuban peoples. The earlier JFK (USA, France 1991) brings out the connections between that policy and the assassination.


My third encounter with cinematic religion was Hacksaw Ridge (Australia, USA 2016). This is Mel Gibson’s take on a pacifist soldier involved in the US invasion of Okinawa during the closing stages of World War II. As with earlier Gibson films [The Passion of the Christ (USA 2004) and Apocalypto ( USA 2006) the film is full of extreme violence and machismo.

The protagonist Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a Seventh Day Adventist. he believes killing is wrong but insists in enrolling in the US military at the start of the war. The early part of the film treats his induction into the army where he becomes a victim because of his refusal to ‘pick up a gun’. At times this reminded me of the similar sequence in Full Metal Jacket (UK, USA 1987)..

Eventually he becomes a medical orderly and in the invasion of Okinawa he heroically rescues, under fire, 75 wounded GIs The battle scenes are pretty over the top, gun ho and relying on CGI which is sometimes quite noticeable. Hacksaw Ridge itself has quadrupled in height in the years since the war. Even given the casualty rates in the Pacific War there seem to be an awful lot of bodies on this one section of the front: and there are an equal number of body parts strewn around. Great for the prosthetics department.

This is the conventional Hollywood war movie. The platoon in which Desmond serves is multi-ethnic group representing the cross section of the USA. The US soldiers are informingly heroic if sometimes fearful. The Japanese are the violent inscrutable other: we even get a hari kari suicide by a Japanese officer at the end of the film; why? And Desmond has a sweet, pretty nurse patiently waiting back home.

You get a sense of what is to come with then opening sequence, a violent and bloody battle scene. We return to this in extended form at the close of the film. US GIs despatching Japanese horde in the ratio familiar from other war movies and the fate of Native Americans in traditional westerns. This has none of the perceptive e treatment in Clint Eastwood’s back-to-back Flags of Our Fathers (USA 2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (USA 20016). And there is certainly none of the former film’s critical and ironic representation of the US war effort.

I was reminded of an earlier Hollywood film about a pacifist, Sergeant York (1941) with Cary Cooper in the title role. Alvin York, after a religious conversion, becomes a pacifist and when the USA enters World War I a conscientious objector. However, he is persuaded that “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The film actually has scene where York weights the bible in one and the US Constitution in the other. Desmond’s life parallels York in that, after a violent bout with his brother, he eschews violence. He is at least more consistent than York as he refuses to carry a gun at all. He does though, finally agree to serve on the Sabbath [a Saturday], against another of his principles. Equally to the point, as Peter Bradshaw pointed out in ‘The Guardian’ review:

“Doss is repeatedly and fiercely challenged by the army on his refusal to bear arms, but no one points out that, unarmed or not, he wants to use medical skills to assist the uniformed killers and make the war machine of death run more smoothly. The basis of his “conscientious cooperation” is not in fact investigated all that rigorously.”

The film version certainly has it both ways. There is the lofty moralism of Desmond who will not kill: and yet the film is able to show killing that rivals the opening of Spielberg’s Sergeant Ryan (USA 1998). The Bolshevik led revolution in 1917 was against imperialist war as well as autocracy, capitalism and the opium of religion. Hopefully we will get some anti-war films this year as well as revisiting the Soviet masterworks.


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