First in a series
I cannot recall the first time I heard the name of the Japanese author Shisaku Endo. It may have been at the same time that I learned that he was being described as the “Japanese Graham Greene.” Greene has been a favorite novelist of mine since my senior year at Xavier, the Jesuit high school in Manhattan, so I became interested in Endo and proceeded to read several of his novels. The first was “Silence.” After reading that excellent novel, I was hooked.
Many years ago, I heard that film director Martin Scorsese was planning to make a film based on “Silence.” In 1973, I saw Scorsese’s film, “Mean Streets,” which was the third film that he had directed. Before seeing it, I knew nothing of Scorsese. But while viewing the film, I knew I was experiencing a special talent, an artist who seemed to be fascinated with Catholicism. I have followed his work with great interest over the last 44 years.
Scorsese claims that while growing up on the Lower East Side, the two great influences in his life were movies and the Catholic Church. An asthmatic child, he could not participate in the sports that occupied his contemporaries and so his father often brought him to see a film.
In planning to show “Silence” on Sept. 8 as the first film in the 54th Friday Film Festival at the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, I am finding myself in a situation similar to Scorsese’s experience of movies and Catholicism. What I mean is that the film, “Silence,” raises all sorts of questions about movies and Catholicism. I find that topics and questions that I have written about often in this weekly column are being raised in my mind by the film.
My general view of art is that it has an objective dimension. I believe that we can make objective judgments about what is a good and what is a poor work of art. It is not just a question of what we might like or dislike. My view is that whether or not we like a work of art, we can make judgments about whether or not it is good. So I think that there are some films that are better than other films. If after the screening of “Silence” someone says to me, “I didn’t like this film,” I would have no problem with that statement. It would be an expression of a person’s taste. I think there can be no argument about taste. However, if someone says, “I don’t think this was a good film,” I will think the person’s judgment is erroneous. I think “Silence” is not only a good film, but a great film.
I certainly would agree that objective judgments about art can be difficult to make. When we experience a work of art, we bring our entire background, our entire world to the experience. It may be difficult to be objective. For example, if we don’t like the artist’s way of living, we may find it difficult to consider his or her work objectively. Or perhaps an artist is so original and his or her work is so different from that of other artists, it may take critics – and the rest of us – time to appreciate what this avant-garde artist is doing. It took me years to come to appreciate the films of author/director Ingmar Bergman. Now I think that Bergman is the greatest talent in the history of motion pictures.
All art is mysterious, especially when it deals with religious subjects. Any artist who tries to depict either God or a person’s relationship with God is dealing, I believe, with the most difficult material.
“Silence” is about religious faith, and the main reason I am showing it is because I think it is a great film. Another reason is that the film was not a commercial success. Many people have told me that they had wanted to see it, but it disappeared from theatres before they had an opportunity to see it. Why was the film not a commercial success? Could it be that the movie-going audience is not interested in a film dealing with religious faith? I hope not. Authors Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy thought that writing stories with a religious dimension was a risk because society has become so secular that even critics might not understand the stories.
I mentioned to a Catholic critic how disappointed I was that “Silence” was not nominated for an Academy Award for the best film of the year. He replied, “Don’t worry about it, Father. Ten years from now we will still be discussing ‘Silence.’”
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty.”