Around this time last week we enjoyed a few hours in Chelmsford with our daughters Lauren and Josie. We grabbed some Italian food, and sat by the River Chelmer, eating and talking. I was so happy, quietly marvelling at our female offspring. Carrying all the challenges of their generation, but brilliant company. So proud of them both. Kind, attentive, sharp, sharing, witty, thoughtful and empathetic.
We wandered over to the Chelmsford Odeon, to see Brad Pitt’s new film, Ad Astra. The kindest thing to say is that he made a decent fist of a terrible script. And that his previous appearance, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was mesmerising.
Ad Astra started with promise. A father-son relationship with a huge hole. Against a background where the solar system has become a commercial environment, as the last 500 years of capitalism have driven mankind outwards, off a struggling planet. Travelling to the moon is like taking the Eurostar to Paris, with snacks buyable by debit card, and delays at customs. And then the revelation that rival earth forces are fighting the US for space resources. Nice shots of space, and the planets.
After that the plot fell apart, as if a 9-year-old scriptwriter had butted in. Brad makes it to Mars, where he swims through a dark underground tunnel and climbs up the launch gantry, through the increasing heat, and, one second before take-off, lets himself in a hatch at the bottom of the rocket that will travel to Neptune to seek his maverick father. Tommy Lee Jones, his dad, has lived on space rations for 30 years, controlling a craft that is emitting mysterious power surges that threaten planet Earth.
That’s all fine if you’re watching Disney. Trying not to spoil the plot here, so won’t say any more except that the story gets more and more ridiculous. The ending is best summed up by the phrase “this is utter bollocks”.
Has Hollywood had its day? There were just 10 people in the cinema. Our tickets were purchased cheaply on Groupon. Yet the Guardian reviewer called it a ‘soaring psychological space-opera’, noting that it played to rapt crowds at the Venice Film Festival. They must have been handing out Italian mushrooms at the door. Or bribing them.
A few days later, Maureen and I watched Silence, Martin Scorsese’s look at how Christianity was banned in 17th century Japan. It started slowly, brooded, and took an hour or so to hit its stride. You had to be patient, but the story felt authentic, tracing the fates of the Portuguese Jesuit priests as they and their followers ran into the Nipponese version of the witchfinder-general.
The stark choice was to deny Christ or die. To be endlessly silent, or pay the price. So much to think about, not least how religion and the Japanese state were indistinguishable. Not unlike Henry VIII’s England. And how the official faith, Buddhism, paid lip service to the priority of its founder – the alleviation of suffering. In a country described more than once in the film as a ‘mudswamp’, forever dragging down the highest impulses.
I love being prompted to think. Can you do more, alive, albeit compromised and almost powerless, in a hostile empire? Or does veracity, truth and influence lay in the agony of the cross? No middle ground. Scorsese, leveraging his Catholic background , provides no answers, but tells a compelling story.
For a far better analysis, it’s worth visiting the review on the excellent Laughter over Tears website, at https://staceyebryan.wordpress.com/2019/09/04/silence/
For sure is that it has made me want to see Scorsese’s True Confessions again.