Love in the Time of Trump

I don’t know where you were when Donald Trump officially became America’s 45th commander-in-chief, but I was reading poetry and riding a bus with Adam Driver.

That is to say, I was in a movie theater in Cambridge, Mass., watching Jim Jarmusch’s sublime new film Paterson, about a poetry-writing bus driver played by Adam Driver.

I did this quite deliberately, thanks to two converging factors.  First, Jarmusch’s movie had received sensational word-of-mouth for months on the film festival circuit, and Friday happened to be its grand opening in New England.  Second, I had decided days earlier that I would not indulge President Narcissus’s obsession with ratings by tuning in to his inauguration in real time.  All things considered, locking myself in a theater seemed the most surefire prophylactic against any last-minute change of heart, and I gotta say, it worked like a charm.

The movie began at 11 a.m. and ran for two hours.  Of course, the presidential transfer of power occurred promptly at noon, which meant that, at a certain point, I wasn’t entirely sure who the president was.  If you haven’t experienced that sensation at some point in your life—say, following a particularly nasty blow to the head—I would highly recommend it four years hence.

In this case, the knowing uncertainty of precisely when one administration wrapped up and the next one started was the very quintessence of bittersweet, which I suppose was kind of the point.  When push came to shove, the crushing reality of this generation’s classiest president being succeeded by its most profane proved too depressing for me to face head-on, so instead I retreated into the realm of make-believe until after the deed was done.  Isn’t that what movies are for?

In fact, Paterson provided an ideal escape from the dawn of Trumpism, as it embodies the antidote to all that makes our new national figurehead so repulsive.  In brief:  It tells the story of a modest, soft-spoken, big-hearted municipal worker from Paterson, N.J., who gets up every morning, does his job without complaint, returns home to his adoring wife (and his slightly less adoring English bulldog, Marvin), then wakes up the next morning and does the whole thing over again.  On the side—in the space between all of the above—he opens his “secret notebook” and scribbles a few lines of verse inspired by the minutiae he encountered along the way.

(In case you missed it:  Yes, he’s a bus driver played by a man named Driver.  And yes, the character’s name is Paterson and he lives in the city of Paterson.  Just roll with it, OK?)

What’s the movie about, you ask?  You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions, but I think it’s about the profound, intrinsic beauty of not wanting to become a person like Donald Trump.

Just as Citizen Kane can be seen as a cautionary tale about how boundless greed will ultimately deprive a man of his friends, his livelihood and his soul (it is also, hilariously, Trump’s all-time favorite), a film like Paterson shows us—in a much subtler way—that personal happiness is never contingent on wealth, fame, a fancy job or a bustling social network.  If you enjoy what you do and have at least one person nearby who cares about you unconditionally, you’re probably happier (and luckier) than 90 percent of humanity.

More to the point:  If you derive satisfaction from snatches of other people’s conversations and from the way your wife welcomes you home after work, you are infinitely better off as a human being than a billionaire consumed with jealousy because only 160,000 people showed up to his big day.

To be clear, the two heroes of Jarmusch’s movie—Paterson and his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani)—do not spend their days grinning and whistling like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain.  In their early 30s and cash poor, they and their marriage seem to inhabit a temporal purgatory between youthful idealism and wised-up resignation.  They haven’t yet unlocked the secret to long-term financial solidity—she is a freelance artist and designer, while his government salary is barely enough to keep the lights on—but then why should they?  They’re too young to have figured everything out, and they know it.

Much more important is their determination to live each day with deliberation, dignity and purpose, wringing as much creativity and joy as they can from their present circumstances, while also quietly hoping—as we all do—that tomorrow will bring something just a little bit different and a little bit better.

In the meantime, they have each other as their greatest source of comfort and strength, and their mutual loyalty and affection is more than sufficient to carry them from one minor life setback to the next.  As cinematic couples go, Paterson and Laura remind me a great deal of Marge and Norm Gunderson in Fargo:  Quirky, unassuming, unostentatious, yet fundamentally happy.  Confident in their pursuits—and deeply supportive of each other’s—they do not require the validation of others to give their lives meaning.  Their routines—him driving a bus and philosophizing, her designing window shades and decorating cupcakes—provide all the motivation they need to make it from Monday to Friday and back again.

Watching their lives unfold, I was also put in mind of “For Now,” the closing song from Avenue Q, in which the entire cast pensively sings, “For now we’re healthy / for now we’re employed / for now we’re happy / if not overjoyed / and we’ll accept the things we cannot avoid / for now.”

The folks in Paterson seem to have internalized this same sensibility, and it has served them well so far.  If the secret to happiness is lowered expectations and a greater appreciation for the little things all around you, Paterson and Laura qualify as the Platonic ideal of living contentedly within one’s means.

Just look, for instance, at the perfectly-executed scene at the dinner table where Laura presents a homemade Brussels sprouts and cheddar quiche, her face glowing with anticipation and pride.  Paterson’s reaction as he takes his first bite—at once subtle and hilarious—is about as pure an expression of true love as you’re ever likely to see at the movies.  It is in that moment that you realize what these two misfits saw in each other in the first place, and how so many unlikely unions manage to endure for decades on end.  No gold toilets necessary.

I’ll mention, on my way out, that I still haven’t watched Trump’s inaugural address, apart from a few unavoidable sound bites here and there.  It’s not that I’m in denial about what America did to itself last November 8th (although I often wonder whether total ignorance would, in fact, be preferable).

Rather, it’s that I simply do not enjoy watching a mentally unbalanced narcissist embarrass himself on national television.  As far as I’m concerned, a Trump speech is no more intellectually edifying than your average reality show or NFL press conference, and I avoid those for roughly the same reason.

Hatred and paranoia do not impress me—particularly from the leader of the free world—and while I will of course maintain vigilance over this new administration’s actions on all the issues that I care about, I feel no compulsion whatsoever to drop everything and tune in whenever the man himself grabs a microphone (and hopefully nothing else) in a haphazard attempt to string a sentence together.

Life is precious.  Time is of the essence.  Love is the only subject that interests me.  In a society where literally anyone can be elected president, it’ll take a lot more than “winning” to earn my attention and my respect.

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The Greatest

If I could ask President Obama exactly one question—and if he were forced to answer it honestly—it would be, “How did you really feel about gay marriage between 1996 and 2012?”

See, in 1996, when the future commander-in-chief was running for the Illinois State Senate, he responded to a questionnaire from a Chicago LGBT newspaper by writing, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Sixteen years later, sitting in the most powerful office on planet Earth, Obama said to ABC’s Robin Roberts, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

There you had it:  Two totally consistent positions on an explosive social issue from a brave political leader acting on principle.

There was only one problem:  For the entire 16-year period in between those two statements, Obama was staunchly and unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage whenever he was asked about it—not least during his 2004 Senate campaign and his initial run for president—explaining that his Christian faith dictates that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.

Indeed, for a solid eight years or so, Obama’s public stance on gay marriage was more regressive than Dick Cheney’s.

Among many LGBT folk, there was always the suspicion that, until 2012, Obama was never quite on the level about what his true feelings on this subject were.  Because he was such a proud liberal on so many other domestic matters, because he cared so deeply about civil rights for all citizens—because he was just so goddamned smart!—we assumed his public opposition to equal marriage rights (while supporting civil unions) was an act of ideological hedging by an ambitious, savvy political tactician.  If he believed in marriage equality in his heart (as his response to that questionnaire suggested), he was not prepared to gamble his political future on it until a majority of the public agreed with him—as it finally did by the end of his first term.

Here, in other words, was a classic example of President Obama “leading from behind”—an executive style that sometimes comes across as not leading at all.

Now, I realize—on this final full day of Obama’s presidency—that to dwell on the inner workings of the man’s soul rather than on the impact of his policies is to risk missing the forest for the trees.  All things considered—regardless of when he officially and wholeheartedly got on board—Obama has been the greatest thing to happen to the LGBT community in the entire history of the world.

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but don’t forget that when Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, same-sex marriage was legal in exactly two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even those unions were not recognized on the federal level.  Meanwhile, gay citizens could not serve openly in the Armed Forces, HIV-positive foreigners could not travel to the United States at all, workplace anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people were largely a joke, and the notion of gender-neutral bathrooms was scarcely a twinkle in anybody’s eye.

Fast-forward eight years, and you realize that we now live in an entirely different country from the one George W. Bush left us with.  Complain all you want about feet-dragging and unfinished business—believe me, you’ll find plenty of material to work with—but there is no denying that President Obama’s reign has been a golden age for LGBT rights unparalleled in human history.  Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that our 44th president has provided more hope and protection to his gay countrymen than our first 43 presidents put together.

Not that he accomplished all (or any) of this by himself.  Apart from signing an executive order every now and again (itself no small thing), all the major breakthroughs on this front—the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passage of the Hate Crimes Protection Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, and so forth—were the culmination of years, if not decades, of grunt work by untold scores of activists, writers and other ordinary people in pursuit of an impossible dream.  Many of those folks didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but their impact on subsequent generations is profound beyond measure.

In truth, Obama’s primary role in effecting a more gay-friendly America was his stepping back and simply allowing it to happen.  Rather than constantly getting in the middle of things—no doubt out of fear that it could backfire—he made a habit of steadily—even stealthily—setting the tone and laying the legal groundwork whereby the barriers to a more just society could be toppled without any resistance at the top.  (The Justice Department refusing to enforce DOMA in 2011 was a classic, crucial example of this.)  Notwithstanding his opposition to marriage rights until 2012, the president made clear his desire to be an LGBT ally from the very beginning.  In the long run, his actions spoke for themselves.

To be sure, there was a great deal of luck in his occupying the Oval Office at the exact moment when defending gay rights suddenly became cool, and we cannot overlook the multitude of cosmic coincidences that conspired to make Obama such a godsend for the gay movement, independent of how much (or how little) it might’ve interested him otherwise.

That said, it is very difficult to imagine the United States having progressed this far under a President John McCain or a President Mitt Romney—two men who didn’t give a damn about gay people and wouldn’t have lifted a finger to make their lives better.  To note the confluence of Obama’s rise with the wide acceptance of the dignity of LGBT people may be historically correct, but it also shortchanges the monumental import of Obama’s efforts to nudge the country, ever-so-slowly, in the right direction.

I’m sure I will never have the opportunity to ask Obama my original question face-to-face—namely, what did he really think and when did he really think it?

Then again, perhaps I will.  Not to brag, but I did briefly meet him once before.

In the fall of 2007, the then-senator and presidential candidate gave a characteristically rousing speech near the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common at dusk.  There were hundreds of spectators, but I arrived early and found a spot right in front, leaned up against the metal fence dividing the audience from the candidate.  After he spoke, he glided along the throng of cheering admirers, shaking the hands of everyone within reach, including me.  I don’t recall if our eyes met, but I appreciated the chance to physically connect with a man who, at that time, was considered by most liberals as more-or-less the second coming of Christ.

I didn’t completely buy into the hype myself.  First of all, he was then trailing Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the polls and couldn’t possibly secure the Democratic nomination.  And second, even in the innocent days of 2007, I knew better than to expect that any president, no matter how brilliant or charismatic, could solve all the problems in the world with a mere flick of his hand.  (While Obama himself never claimed the job would be that easy, his most devoted fans certainly got that impression.)

With this in mind, it was all I could do that evening to shout the words “good luck” in his general direction as he let go of my hand and continued on.  I admired the hell out of him, but I knew he would never actually become commander-in-chief.  After eight embarrassing years of George W. Bush, what right did we Americans have to be led by someone so dazzling, so worldly, so intelligent, and so…normal?

We didn’t deserve him, yet in the end we elected him twice.  He was the president we needed, and only in retrospect will we fully understand just how lucky we’ve been since January 20, 2009.  We may never see the likes of him ever again, but then the miracle is that we got him once.  All we can do now is be grateful.

Inherent Vice

Christopher Hitchens used to say there isn’t a more unforgivable sin than being boring.  (And, accordingly, no more miserable human experience than being bored.)  However, in spending the final decade of his life engaged in high-spirited debates over such disparate subjects as the Iraq War and the (non-)existence of God, Hitchens conceded that to be passionately engaged on one side of a contentious issue requires making the same arguments over and over and over again.  What could be more boring than that?

I mention this because we Americans are about to inaugurate as commander-in-chief a man against whom we have spoken and written so extensively over the last year-and-a-half that we seem to have already run out of new ideas and are now simply repeating ourselves (and each other), effectively boring ourselves to death.

And who could possibly blame us?  When you get right down to it, how many different ways are there to call someone a selfish, narcissistic, vulgar charlatan who knows nothing about statecraft and cares even less?  When that same man takes to Twitter to bitch about the latest celebrity who refused to kneel at his feet, what recourse do we have but to use the same belittling terms to characterize just how thin-skinned and small-minded such behavior makes this 70-year-old infant appear to the wider world?

This is not to say that we have President-elect Voldemort entirely figured out just yet.  By his own admission, he places great stock in being unpredictable—to friends and enemies alike—which makes compiling a full psychological profile of him very nearly impossible.  (How fitting that the verb “gaslight” has enjoyed a resurgence in the American vernacular as of late.)

However, what we do know for sure about our next president—none of which is promising—is enough to keep us invigorated well into the first hundred days of his administration—if not the first thousand—and we have no choice but to reassert them ad nauseam until we are given a reason to think otherwise.  When it comes to opposing Trump, there is no choice but to be boring.

To be clear:  I don’t mean that we should spend the dude’s entire presidency hurling childish insults at him the way he does at others—enjoyable as that might be.

What we need—particularly in these tense early moments—is to establish the truths about Agent Orange that are ingrained in his very DNA—and thus destined to remain the same—while separating out our collective impressions of him that, in the fullness of time, may well be proved false, exaggerated or unimportant.  We cannot get bogged down in ancillary minutiae.  As Joseph Ellis whimsically put it, “There’s something called the forest, and then there’s something called the trees.”

As far as I’m concerned, there is one fact about Donald Trump that overrides everything else:  Insomuch as he values anything at all in this world, it is the furthered personal enrichment of Donald Trump, full stop.  In the end, the 45th president cares about nothing but himself and calibrates his every action based on what he believes is in his own best interest, and nothing more.

This may seem like an obvious point—which, of course, it is—but if we take the next step and accept it as the singular insight that explains everything worth knowing about this strange person—the who, the what, the why and the how—we could save ourselves a great deal of puzzlement and needless psychoanalyzing down the road, and perhaps even be able to anticipate future events with more accuracy than if we merely assumed the worst at every turn.

It’s a question of motivation:  How does a man who is capable of doing anything decide to do something in particular?  Having licensed himself to violate every civic norm in the book, what are the ultimate ends that he intends to achieve with his newfound political power?  And if he truly has no coherent plan—if this whole crusade really was just an idle ego trip that got out of hand—what inner forces are going to guide his decision-making once he actually sits in the Oval Office chair?

It’s not the white supremacy.  Surely, if his poll numbers among African-Americans miraculously shot through the roof, he would embrace (read: exploit) that support before the sun came up the next morning.

Nor is it the authoritarian need to control all levers of power at all times.  If the press swooned over him the way it has often swooned over President Obama, he would gladly defer to journalists’ right to do their jobs and would likely hold a press conference on an almost hourly basis.  (He may well do the latter in any case.)

Nor, certainly, is it any particular fealty to conservatism, isolationism or any other halfway-coherent view of the world that he has occasionally dabbled in but plainly knows nor cares nothing about.  Here, as with everything else, he has shown a profound, aggressive willingness to reverse any policy position on a moment’s notice—often, for good measure, denying such a change ever occurred—leading us to conclude that most, if not all, of his political views are affectations, as phony as they are ephemeral.

All of which might be tolerable were Trump to possess a scintilla of concern for the public good—if he could tailor his policies based on what would yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

But he doesn’t and he can’t.  Practically since birth, he has occupied a position in society whereby status and wealth are the only things worth attaining.  Like a slimier version of Henry Hill in GoodFellas, Trump exists in a milieu that views poverty as a failure of imagination and modesty as a form of psychosis.  To him, there is nothing more contemptible than a morally upstanding citizen who doesn’t give a damn about money or fame.  Just look at how many of those sorts of folks he has insulted in the course of his life.

There is no reconciling this obsession with personal enrichment with the interests of the nation at large.  Hence my view that Trump’s rank greed and selfishness will be the “rosebud” to his presidency:  They are the only constant in his 70 miserable years on Earth, and if you want to know what he’s going to do today, ask yourself what he stands to gain tomorrow.

Love the Bubble

There’s an old story that when Richard Nixon was re-elected president in 1972 by a score of 49 states to one, the legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael remarked, “How could Nixon possibly have won?  Nobody I know voted for him!”

In truth, Kael said nothing of the sort.  Or rather, she said the exact opposite of the above, but because life is one long game of telephone, over time her words have been misinterpreted to within an inch of their life, so that now she comes off as an oblivious, left-wing stooge.  Oh well:  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

All the same, those exact words have been bouncing around my head a lot these days, following the even more inexplicable election of an even more inappropriate candidate to that very same high office.  If the gist of Kael’s (fictional) lament is that Americans are so ideologically tribal that we’ve essentially walled ourselves off from those with whom we disagree, I’ve certainly done my part to make matters worse.

Indeed, months before Donald Trump became America’s president-elect, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that, so far as I could tell, not a single person I’ve ever known was prepared to cast a vote for him.  Nor, for that matter, was any writer, elected official or celebrity in my intellectual orbit for whom I hold even a modicum of respect—including many conservatives who would normally support the Republican candidate as reflexively as I would support the Democrat.

Is this because, like Pauline Kael, I live inside an elitist, left-wing bubble and spent the entirety of 2016 subconsciously avoiding any views I would rather not hear?  Probably.

Is it also because Donald Trump was the most unserious and morally repugnant presidential candidate in a century, and therefore liable to turn off virtually any honest person who knows a vulgar charlatan when they see one?  Once again:  All signs point to yes.

Because those two things are equally true—not one more than the other—I’ve had real trouble feeling guilty about contributing to America’s increasing divide between Team Red and Team Blue.  I don’t doubt that if I put in more effort to reach out to folks in the heartland and elsewhere who do not share my values, I would likely emerge a fuller, more empathetic human being.  But there is no amount of ideological ecumenicalism that could negate all the terrible things Trump has said and that innumerable supporters of his have done:  He and they are as contemptible today as they’ve ever been—if not worse—and I have no desire to treat their particular views on race, religion and gender as if they are deserving of my respect.

Remember:  One’s politics are not some ingrained, immovable phenomenon like ethnicity or sexual orientation.  They are a choice.  They reflect how you think—as opposed to who you are—and that makes them fair game for the condemnation of others.

Which brings us—improbably enough—to Meryl Streep.

At Sunday’s Golden Globes, Streep chose to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award by expressing her revulsion toward the president-elect and all that he represents—specifically, his disdain for multiculturalism and a free press, as well as his pathological inability to ever behave like a mature, compassionate adult.  Predictably, the crowd inside the Beverly Hilton went wild, while right-wingers online condemned Streep as an arrogant liberal nut.  And so it goes.

From a close reading of Streep’s remarks, we find that—apart from an unfair crack about mixed martial arts—she didn’t make a single statement that any decent person could possibly disagree with.  Every factual assertion was objectively correct (e.g., Trump is a bully, Hollywood actors have geographically diverse backgrounds), while every value judgment was so basic and obvious that a kindergartner could understand it (e.g., “disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence”).

Substantively, there was absolutely nothing controversial in Streep’s comments.  The uproar, then, was entirely a function of Streep’s status as Hollywood royalty—and, thus, a spokeswoman for the cultural left—which led those on the right to denounce her purely out of partisan vindictiveness, just the way congressional Republicans have opposed much of what President Obama has said because he said them.

That, my friends, is the real danger of living in a bubble:  Your ideological bias can become so overpowering that you decide, in advance, that those in the other bubble could never possibly say something true.  And that is the moment at which all good governance—nay, all good citizenship—ends.

I, for one, am entirely comfortable with the fact that, during the next four years, Donald Trump will occasionally say and do things of which I completely approve.  When that happens, I hope I will have the decency and integrity to say so.  All I ask in return is for everyone else—no matter which bubble they call home—to meet me halfway.

Pikuach Nefesh

I haven’t been a particularly devout Jew since the day after my bar mitzvah (and possibly not then, either).  However, if there’s one argument I’d still make in favor of Judaism over any other faith, it would be how it places the preservation of human life above all other Earthly considerations.

 To be sure, Jewish law contains more intricately-detailed directives about how to conduct one’s private affairs than the Republican Party platform on acid.  To be a fully observant Jew is to be overwhelmed by minutiae about everything from which foods to eat—and on what plates and with which silverware—to which activities may—and may not—be performed on the Sabbath.  (Going for a short walk?  Yes.  Riding a bike?  No.)

However, overriding all of this is the concept of Pikuach Nefesh, which stipulates that if a person’s life is in jeopardy, you are compelled to violate every Jewish law and custom in the book to ensure that that person does not die.

In our secular American society, we like to think that this basic moral imperative goes more or less without saying (e.g., if a man is drowning in a river, you don’t ask what day of the week it is before jumping in to save him), but religion does not always make things so simple—particularly when it comes to faith itself.

Reading the Old Testament, we find that God values his own supremacy above all else, demanding nothing so much as total trust and submission from his human creations, up to and including when such blind faith might result in the deliberate taking of another person’s life.  What other lesson can we draw from the story of Abraham, after all, than that Abraham’s love for the Lord was so great that he would rather murder his own son than wonder if God, in asking him to do so, hadn’t gone a little bit crazy?

Is that the take-home lesson for Abraham’s descendants?  “If a voice in your head tells you to kill the people you love, you’d better listen”?

In a manner of speaking:  Yes.  For the truly devout—those who take God seriously and the Bible literally—faith is a virtue greater than life itself.

As a nonbeliever, I do not (and probably cannot) appreciate the immense burden of negotiating the word of God—supposedly the source of all absolute truth in the universe—with certain instincts that might contradict it.  I do not know what it feels like to have a long, dark night of the soul.

What I can appreciate, however, is the passion of those who have experienced the crucible of doubt firsthand and have spent a lifetime wrestling with its deathly implications.

One such person is Martin Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic with a new film that examines the nature of religious (Christian) faith with a depth and seriousness that—in the world of cinema, at least—only comes around once in a blue moon.

His movie is called Silence.  Based on a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, it follows a pair of young Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan in 1639 to bear witness to a society officially cleansed of Christianity.  Ostensibly, their “mission” is to track down a fellow cleric, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared into Japan several years earlier and allegedly renounced his faith as a way to save his own skin.

(Warning:  Spoilers ahead.)

Rodrigues—the more zealous of the two men—refuses to believe that Father Ferreira has apostatized merely to get along easier in a foreign, Buddhist culture.  What Rodrigues does not yet comprehend—and what he will spend the remainder of his journey discovering—is the profound cruelty inflicted by Japanese officials upon Christians—Japanese and non-Japanese alike—who publicly affirm their fealty to Jesus Christ.

Because Christianity was formally banned by the Japanese government throughout the 17th century and beyond, those who practiced it had to do so in secret and at great personal risk.  As with communism in 1950s America or homosexuality throughout Africa and the Middle East today, to be a Christian in Edo-era Japan required a network of interdependence amongst its practitioners, each of whom lived with a perpetual fear that someone would eventually rat them all out, with consequences almost too horrible to contemplate.  Surely, to carry on like this is the very definition of courage.

On their way to Father Ferreira, Rodrigues and his companion, Garupe, spend a great deal of time in remote mountain hideaways simply performing their clerical duties—lighting candles, hearing confessions, etc.—and we are shown how, in a repressive, closed-off society, even the smallest of religious rituals becomes a dignified act of defiance, as well as a means of salvation and solace in the face of an otherwise hopeless political reality.

In the end, the real challenge for Rodrigues—as it was for Ferreira before him—is whether his steadfast fidelity to Christian teaching is worth losing everything for, including not just his own life, but the lives of others.  His captors’ ultimate brutality, it turns out, is not simply to kill or torture him, but to force him into an impossible ethical dilemma whereby he must decide what God really wants from him without being given any indication of what the correct answer might be.

As much as one might defend martyring oneself for a religious ideal, does the same argument extend to martyring others against their will?  How many lives are you willing to extinguish in order to remain spiritually pure?  And if the cost of that purity is so very steep, how can you be so sure that you’re acting morally at all?

You can’t.  Without a direct hotline to God himself (if even then), you simply cannot know for certain what the so-called “right thing” is.  Scorsese understands this as well as any filmmaker working today, and Rodrigues’s torment over this question is what makes Silence so compelling:  Here is a man questioning the nature of his own heart for the first time in his adult life, fearful that everything he’s been taught might be wrong, yet stubbornly clinging to the hope that his work has not been in vain.

If you think Scorsese is going to give you a clean, final answer on this, you’re barking up the wrong film.  The movie’s (and novel’s) title refers to the chasm between the absolutism of dogma and the ambiguity of real life, and that gap is where all great drama resides.

To witness how single-mindedly and unsparingly Scorsese has tackled this subject is to understand why it took nearly 30 years for a studio to give him the green light.  As with all so-called “passion projects,” it is very clear that Scorsese made this movie for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.  As a commercial product, Silence is risky at best and crazy at worst.  As a window into how a serious Catholic has come to regard the human soul during his 74 years on Earth, it is something close to a triumph.