May 31, 2017


I saw Martin Scorsese's Silence back in January and I have been thinking about it ever since. It is a film about the persecution of Christians in Japan in the mid seventeenth century and the real phenomenon of priests who went there from the Spanish possessions in the Philippines and,after capture, recanted their faith. The story is based upon a novel by the Japanese novelist Shusako Endo, which reimagines the story from the point of view of an imagined priest (SebastiĆ£o Rodrigues) modelled on Guissepe Chiara. There is so much that is of interest in the film and the story: for a start, the mid seventeenth century is an important point in the history of Japan. Japan is not the only country to have partially formed through the persecution of a religious minority- you could say the same of England and Spain for example. There is also the story of the Japanese Christians which is touched on here, who survived through this persecution right down to the present day. Lastly there is the story that I think Scorsese is most interested in, the story of the priest who recanted and why.

The history of Christianity is the history of an extended meditation on this theme. For the Church Fathers this was a real issue or one that was real in living memory. The early Church was persecuted under Emperors such as Nero, Decius and Diocletian. The son of God, according to Christians, met his death in an act of religious persecution. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church said Tertullian in the 2nd Century. Furthermore those images have resonated down the centuries. Martin Luther, for example, cast himself in their image when he went to the Diet of Worms. Martyrdom is key to Christianity- so the real challenge of this film is explaining how a priest, who went to Japan knowing that persecution was happening, knowing that he would be captured, confessed.

The first thing to say is that we don't and can't know why the priests who recanted confessed. Neither I, nor Scorsese, nor Endo have any access to what they thought or why they did it. Even memoirs would be self serving. So all we have is an imagined thought experiment- why did they confess? What I think is interesting about this film is that it provides a Christian counter narrative for that confession. The argument here is that the priest who does not confess is arrogantly seeking to sacrifice others for his own vanity. Confessing is a way of saving the lives of others. The inquisitors do not threaten the priest with torture and death, they say that if he holds out, they will threaten his followers with torture and death. Notice for a second that I have used the word life- not soul. This to me is the real weakness of the argument of the film. There is a Christian case for allowing people to die when they are being persecuted- for tonight they shall be in Paradise. I found this argument on first sight therefore rather weak. It seemed to miss the point of Christian theology. Augustine for example continuously says in De Civitate Dei that the focus of human hope and human fear should be on the City of God not the City of Man.

This is not an easy dilemma but its one on which I think Silence largely turns. Scorsese seeks to address this dilemma in part by having his main character at the end of the film face Christ himself who commands him to make the decision to recant. We can see this as an easy way out for the director. We could also see this as part of another tension in Christianity between the word- scripture- and revelation from God directly. This conflict played its way out in the seventeenth century- just take the English Civil War- but also in the Catholic Church over time, with the conflict between the Church hierarchy and various orders of monks, nuns and friars. Is the Christ that we see a devil or really Christ and how would someone, racked by hunger, listening to the screams of his co-accused, realising the pain and agony that is to come, make that distinction?

I am not going to answer any of these questions. Theologically, there are probably cases on both sides. What I feel is so interesting about Silence as a film is its attempt to take us inside these dilemmas, to let us try and imagine what the right decision for this priest in Japan might have been. From a secular view point in the 21st century, admittedly one I probably subscribe to, that choice seems obvious- confess, recant and save lives. What I think the film almost does and where it does do this, it succeeds in being a great film, is show us that that decision for a 17th Century Catholic priest was not simple nor was it morally uncomplicated.

May 21, 2017

Lady Macbeth

I have tried to write a review of Lady Macbeth three times so far and failed each time. It is easy to write a synopsis of this film but I don't want to do that. The film is about one of the oldest cinematic story- a young wife, with an older husband, who falls in love with a younger man. We've seen it often from the male point of view- think for example of The Postman always rings twice- a story which focusses on John Garfield as the central narrator. Lady Macbeth plays with this narrative because the central character is not the male lover, not the husband, both of whom have barely any character at all. The central figure in the film is the wife- she is the only character in this film with any character whatsoever. Florence Pugh plays this Lady Macbeth- Catherine- brilliantly and her performance is definitely the best thing about the film. What she shows though is a character who is neither likeable nor admirable- though possibly sympathetic.

It is easy to sympathise with Catherine in the film. She is married to a husband who not merely is older and implicitly not sexually attractive to her but who will not give her any sexual outlet. Her father in law humiliates her- demanding that she has a child when he knows that his son will not take the necessary action. She is confined in doors by the two of them and by respectable opinion and she is clearly constrained in everything she can or might do. She is treated by her husband as though she were a commodity that his father bought for him, along with a piece of land that as he says would not even provide enough fodder for a cow. This is a woman trapped in a sexist household and constrained in a sexist society. Even after her husband dies, she is still threatened by the potential threat of a male coming into her world and taking it over. Perhaps most symbolically, the film traps Catherine in her house- which feels very Victorian and starchy. She is also trapped by her clothes- we see her again and again being put into corseted dresses, a symbol of her constrained circumstances.

However whilst she is sympathetic, she is not likeable. Catherine is not dislikeable because she has an affair. I think any reasonable woman or man seeing her position would see how an affair was natural. She wants in the early parts of the film affection and sexual desire which her husband will not, for some unexplained reason, give her. However, she is still not likeable. There is another set of relationships in the film apart from the relationships between Catherine and the men in her life and that is the relationships between Catherine and her social inferiors- including her maid and her lover. Catherine's relationship with her maid- Anna- is vicious and she exploits her position as a mistress to the full. She clearly treats Anna badly at several points in the film. This is a woman who sees nothing in making her maid complicit in murder. She also steals Anna's love interest. With her lover, Catherine's behaviour may not be as coercive, but it is still clear that their relationship is all about sex and not about his personality or his qualities. Catherine is unlikeable because she constrains other characters in similar ways to the ways in which her husband and father constrain her.

What I took from Lady Macbeth was a horror story. It is set in an imagined 19th century- where slavery existed in the North of England. Her fieriness may remind one of Catherine Earnshaw- but that Catherine's story is very different. This is fictional setting I think makes me generalise this story- it is not about a particular place or time but about a human condition of constraint. What's interesting about it I think is that no character in this film really has a character. Catherine's character is the most fully developed- but I think for her, we have three real insights- firstly the effects of sexist constraint, secondly her exploitation of class constraint and thirdly her raw desire for pleasure and independence. Character has been obliterated by convention. In an odd way, the very stylised dialogue which made me think of Pinter reasserts that point. Human beings communicate in this film to express lust, domination and order- rather than to communicate about their different worlds. Catherine has no apparent interests- her one interest (going outside) is really a symbolic choice by the director to suggest her desire for freedom.

Some reviewers have seen this film and come across with much less complicated feelings about it than mine (take Deborah Ross in the Spectator for example). My own analysis is that this film is in a sense a fable about how extreme constraints on human behaviour produce a humanity drained of everything save for its desire for freedom. The constraints on Catherine and on Anna mean that their personalities are only really visible in their conformity or struggle against those constraints. It is suggestive I think that these two- both of the characters who we feel sympathy with in the film- are left at the end of it both mutely looking into an uncertain future.

April 15, 2017

The railways in Scotland

I was doing some research a couple of years ago in the British Library and came across John Kerr's Memories Grave and Gay- an account of his life as a school inspector. Kerr is an interesting source for school inspection in the late 19th century but he is also an interesting source for the way in which Scots treated the inspector. Kerr was interested not just in recording the content and the ideology of his inspections but also the way in which he found Scotland itself. One of the most interesting facets of this was transport. Kerr was appointed to be an inspector in 1860 within the 'whole of the north of Scotland, between Dundee and Shetland, with the exception of Perthshire and the Western Islands'. He was one of three men who covered this vast area and he described them as 'regular vagabonds' (p.14). Kerr says in his memoir that he was 'one of the last men in Scotland who did his travelling by the now almost disused pair of saddle-bags' and equipped with waterproofs said he rode several times from Dundee to John O'Groats and back.

Trains were just making it to Scotland in this period. Kerr describes his experiences with them in this fairly long passage.

On the Elgin and Rothes line I saw the Provost of Elgin walk across a field with a letter in his hand, which he waved to the driver of a train going at its usual full speed. The train stopped and the guard took charge of the letter. At Ordens, a siding on the Banff and Buckie branch line, I was instructed to go into this siding and as the train approached, set fire to a newspaper or other material that would make a good blaze and the train would stop. The night was very dark and windy and I failed to set fire to the newspaper, but a stentorian shout which I executed had the same effect and I was taken on board. On another occasion, I called on a school correspondent whose house was about a mile from a station on the Findhorn line. When I proposed to walk back to the station, he said "You needn't take the trouble. I always stop it as it goes past." And he did. (pp. 22-3) 

There is a serious point here beyond the whimsy of stopping trains like taxis. Transport in these remote areas of Scotland was obviously badly used and limited. What Kerr was doing would not have been out of the ordinary to someone in the reign of Macbeth- riding around the northern hamlets and villages. What was different is that there is no indication in his memoir of any fear of highwaymen or bandits- something that anyone doing what he did in centuries past would have faced. Secondly in terms of the railways, I think you can see the fascinating way in which railways came in to life here- in the response of the correspondent you see an attitude to railways that is far less limited to the station than our attitude today- but also depends as Kerr notes on the fact that that line was under used. (Incidentally he points out it was closed by 1902 when he wrote the book- a line that didn't even make the Beeching cull of the early 1960s). The availability of this kind of transport though was only arriving in the Britain of 1860: and that tells us something about the way in which the UK government could project its power. I wonder as well whether it is entirely an accident that the kind of administrative welfare that Kerr represented- with its systems of central funding and inspection- arose at the same time as the mass transport Kerr recognised arriving in the Highlands.