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In honoring ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ over ‘Silence,’ the film academy chooses the lesser of two religious epics

‘Hacksaw Ridge’
Luke Bracey, left, and Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge.”
(Mark Rogers / Summit Entertainment)
Film Critic

In one of those curious coincidences that can occur during any given awards season, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed Oscar nominations on Tuesday morning to two English-language period dramas set, in part, on Japanese soil — both starring Andrew Garfield, both directed by serious-minded Christian filmmakers, both years in the making, and both heavily invested in visions of intense physical and spiritual torment.

But while Mel Gibson’s faith-based World War II epic, “Hacksaw Ridge,” came away with six nominations, including best picture, director for Gibson and lead actor for Garfield, “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s intimate and rigorous drama about Jesuit missionaries in 16th-century Japan, received a lone (and well-deserved) nomination for Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography.

Live coverage: Analysis, reactions, snubs, surprises and more on the 2017 Oscar nominations »

It was not an entirely unexpected outcome. “Hacksaw Ridge,” a box-office hit with more than $150 million worldwide, had already shown its strength with Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild of America and Golden Globe nominations, and it was deemed a stealth contender from the moment it premiered to a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in the fall.

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“Silence,” a long-aborning passion project that has been a disappointing flop with about $8 million globally, was passed over by most of the major guilds and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. — admittedly for reasons that may have something to do with its late-December release date and Paramount’s difficulty getting the film seen by awards voters.

Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson star in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.”

And then, of course, there is the simple matter of the films themselves, which, for all their superficial similarities, could scarcely be more different in dramatic tone, visual style and moral attitude. “Hacksaw Ridge” is a pulse-pounding, proudly unsubtle bloodbath that, in telling the story of Medal of Honor-winning conscientious objector Desmond Doss, allows its director to indulge his propensity for screen violence in the guise of a pacifist statement.

What Gibson does here — the cinematic equivalent of lovingly arranging meat in a butcher-shop window — is worlds away from the kind of sober consideration of the horrors of combat that Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood achieved in their World War II dramas. You don’t come away from “Hacksaw Ridge” thinking “war is hell” so much as “war is Mel.” It’s a morally incoherent work but also a viscerally exciting one, and academy voters no doubt responded to its bravura display of blood and guts as much as (if not more than) they appreciated its themes of individual courage and sacrifice.

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There is also, of course, a great deal of suffering on display in “Silence,” but while the film’s attitude toward its victims can feel alternately empathetic and distanced, it never once tilts into exploitation. Nor does it ever threaten to eclipse the film’s provocative ideas, advanced in Shūsaku Endō’s original novel and meticulously preserved in Scorsese and Jay Cocks’ screenplay.

“Silence” is a dense, weighty, nearly three-hour meditation on the absence of God, the challenge of belief, the folly of imperialism and the complex intertwining of Eastern and Western culture throughout history. It is also, in my opinion, the finest movie of 2016, and one that will be recognized belatedly as one of Scorsese’s greatest achievements. But at the present moment, “Silence” represents a challenging sit for audiences — and sadly, this too often includes Oscar voters — who see intellectual engagement and moral ambiguity as the enemy, rather than the enabler, of great cinema.

Both “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence” aspire to the condition of religious art — to say something urgent and meaningful about what it means to be a follower of Christ in a hostile and divided world. Given that the industry doesn’t always know what to do with moviegoers of faith, treating them with everything from awkward pandering to contemptuous indifference, this is no small thing.

But while “Silence” takes faith seriously enough to treat it as the devilish, all-consuming paradox it is, “Hacksaw Ridge” backs it as a sure thing. There is no room for doubt or dissent in Gibson’s triumphalist universe, and everything we see in this movie, with its naive and ham-fisted St. Sulpician imagery, seems to arise from a troubling posture of moral complacency.

In “Hacksaw Ridge,” the Japanese characters are little more than cannon fodder — an inevitable product of the film’s American perspective, and one that is unlikely to disturb the movie’s many fans. In “Silence,” an incisive work of cultural inquisition, the Japanese characters and their perspectives are treated with unusual dignity and seriousness. The performances by Issey Ogata, Yōsuke Kubozuka and Tadanobu Asano are among the most complex and accomplished given by Asian actors in an American studio picture in recent memory — a fact that speaks as much to the underrepresentation of minority talent as it does to the quality of the work.

The film-to-film contrast is particularly telling with regard to Garfield, whose body of work in 2016 amounts to one hell of an endurance test, and who was nominated for a solid performance that is the lesser of the two achievements by far. As Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge,” Garfield beams gawkily, grimaces stoically and makes an excellent candidate for sainthood. But the complexity of his arc in “Silence” — the way Father Rodrigues’ pride and moral defensiveness gradually melt into a posture of ravaged humility and despair — is almost entirely absent.

Scorsese and Gibson are, of course, two very different filmmakers, albeit with some notable points of overlap. Both have made their Catholic beliefs central to their work, with often controversial results, as both “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Passion of the Christ” can still attest. And both have often been in thrall to the power of screen violence — though Scorsese, at least, has shown that violence is far from the only thing that interests him.

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Both directors have a profound understanding of what it means to be a Hollywood outsider. For years, Scorsese’s principled rebelliousness, his refusal to conform to the demands of the system, was cited as the reason he was passed over for a directing Oscar for so long. He finally won on his sixth nomination, for “The Departed” (2006), and has since racked up two more nominations in that category, for “Hugo” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Gibson, by contrast, won a directing Oscar for “Braveheart” (1995) — his first and, until this morning, his only nomination. After the well-publicized anti-Semitic tirade he unleashed after his DUI arrest in 2006, he has spent much of the last decade in a state of self-imposed, industry-approved exile — starring in the odd vehicle here and there (including “The Beaver” and the recent “Blood Father”), but steering clear of the director’s chair and the spotlight until the producers of “Hacksaw Ridge” came along.

Gibson’s return to the industry that once shunned him is now complete. And while the movies have never made it easy to separate the value of the art from the values of the artist, a man’s personal and professional rehabilitation is not something to which I can, in good faith, object. It’s hard not to be reminded that Hollywood has always been a sucker for a great comeback story — which makes it all the more ironic that they overlooked the one movie that actually understands the meaning of redemption.

justin.chang@latimes.com

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