In honoring ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ over ‘Silence,’ the film academy chooses the lesser of two religious epics
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
WINNER: Best picture; Actor in a supporting role - Mahershala Ali; adapted screenplay | NOMINATED: directing - Barry Jenkins; actress in a supporting role - Naomie Harris; cinematography; original score; film editing(David Bornfriend / A24)
WINNER: actress in a leading role - Emma Stone; directing - Damien Chazelle; cinematography; production design; original score; original song - “City of Stars” | NOMINATED: Best picture; actor in a leading role - Ryan Gosling; original screenplay; sound editing; sound mixing; original song - “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”; costume design; film editing(Dale Robinette / Lionsgate)
WINNER: original screenplay; actor in a leading role - Casey Affleck | NOMINATED: Best picture; directing - Kenneth Lonergan; actor in a supporting role - Lucas Hedges; actress in a supporting role - Michelle Williams(Claire Folger / Amazon Studios and Roadside Attr)
WINNER: Actress in a supporting role - Viola Davis | NOMINATED: Best picture; actor in a leading role - Denzel Washington; adapted screenplay(David Lee / Paramount Pictures)
WINNER: sound editing | NOMINATED: Best picture; directing - Denis Villeneuve; adapted screenplay; cinematography; sound mixing; film editing(Jan Thijs / Paramount Pictures)
NOMINATED: Best picture; actress in a supporting role - Octavia Spencer; adapted screenplay(Hopper Stone)
WINNER: sound mixing; film editing | NOMINATED: Directing - Mel Gibson; actor in a leading role - Andrew Garfield; sound editing(Mark Rogers / Summit/Associated Press)
WINNER: costume design | NOMINATED: Production design(Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros. Entertainment and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment)
WINNER: Makeup and hairstyling(Clay Enos / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
WINNER: Animated feature film(Disney)
NOMINATED: Best picture; actor in a supporting role - Jeff Bridges; original screenplay; film editing(Lorey Sebastian / CBS Films/Lionsgate)
NOMINATED: Best picture; actor in a supporting role - Dev Patel; actress in a supporting role - Nicole Kidman; adapted screenplay; cinematography; original score(Mark Rogers)
NOMINATED: Actress in a leading role - Natalie Portman; original score; costume design(Pablo Larrain / Twentieth Century Fox)
NOMINATED: Actor in a leading role - Viggo Mortensen; production design; costume design(Cathy Kanavy / Bleecker Street)
NOMINATED: Actress in a leading role - Meryl Streep; costume design(Nick Wall / Paramount Pictures)
NOMINATED: Actress in a leading role - Ruth Negga(Ben Rothstein / Focus Features)
NOMINATED: Actress in a leading role - Isabelle Huppert(Guy Ferrandis / Sony Pictures Classics via AP)
NOMINATED: Original score - Thomas Newman(Jaimie Trueblood / Sony Pictures)
NOMINATED: Foreign language film; makeup and hairstyling(Johan Bergmark / Music Box Films)
NOMINATED: Makeup and hairstyling(Kimberley French)
NOMINATED: Original screenplay(Merrick Morton / A24)
NOMINATED: Original song - “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
NOMINATED: Original screenplay(Despina Spyrou / Alchemy)
NOMINATED: Visual effects; sound mixing(Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm)
NOMINATED: Animated feature film; original song - “How Far I’ll Go”(Disney)
NOMINATED: Visual effects; animated feature film(LAIKA / Focus Features)
NOMINATED: Animated feature film(Wild Bunch)
NOMINATED: Animated feature film(TIFF)
NOMINATED: Visual effects; sound editing(David Lee)
NOMINATED: Original score - “The Empty Chair”(Manu Brabo / AP)
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.
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