Wonder Woman
Produced by D.C. Entertainment
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allen Heinberg 
Distributed by Warner Brothers 

Produced by Cappa Defina Productions
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks, from the novel by Shusaku Endo
Distributed by Paramount Pictures 

Wonder Woman is the first installment of what threatens to be an endless line of sequels.  Patty Jenkins directed the movie, an odd choice.  Ms. Jenkins directed Monster in 2003, a sympathetic feminist treatment of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a woman more wretched than wondrous.  There is nevertheless a parallel.  Jenkins managed to raise her lead actress Charlize Theron from a beautiful film accessory to a formidable actress.  She may have done the same thing for Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress of exceptional raven-haired beauty who serves as the new film’s principal special effect.  As for her acting, it’s perfectly adequate to her duties as an Amazonian warrior.  When the occasion demands, she manages to look fierce, a skill she may have developed while training in the Israel Defense Force.  One thespian accomplishment that may still elude her: modifying her accent.  It’s distinctly Israeli, so much so that the other actresses—Connie Nielsen, playing her mother, and Robin Wright, her aunt—were evidently directed to adopt Israeli accents of their own.

The usual antics of the superhero genre have been muted for the first three quarters of the story as we’re filled in on the background of Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, and how she came to be fighting Germans during World War I.  As you might imagine, this takes a good deal of explaining.  And then there’s Steve Trevor, the fighter pilot who crashes just offshore of Paradise Island, Wonder Woman’s home.  He needs saving both on the island and off.  When he takes Diana with him to London, however, he reveals his heroic pluck.  He saves her from the embarrassment of being clothed in a short tunic that bares her athletic legs to her thighs.  He sweeps the lady into a department store and has her outfitted in a lovely pearl-grey ankle-length great coat topped with a magisterially brimmed hat.  Yes, you lose sight of Gadot’s wondrous figure, but you gain a stronger impression of her dark, dazzling eyes.  Then, as they emerge from the emporium, she returns the favor by saving Steve a second time as German spies corner them in an alley.  As bullets fly, she intercepts them flawlessly with her silver cuffs and then proceeds to beat the tar out of the krauts, standing back only once in order to give Steve his chance to clock one of them.  She’s an intelligent woman after all.

William Moulton Marston invented Wonder Woman in 1941 to free young women from the yoke of male dominance.  Diana Prince was going to set the relations between the sexes straight.  She was also going to broadcast his feminist credentials and thereby endear him to the ladies.  Marston was so feminist that he contrived to have two wives and live with them under the same roof, fathering two children with each woman.

Marston was a big man with big appetites and bold theories.  Despite his feminism, he was sure a woman couldn’t be happy until she submitted to a man.  Doesn’t sound like Gloria Steinem, does it?  Still, Ms. Steinem put Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1971.  Marston’s two wives seem to have accepted his ideas and got along with him and each other.  One held a job to pay the bills, and the other stayed home to rear the children.  As for Marston, he couldn’t hold a job.  He had started strong as a research professor in Harvard’s department of psychology, but seems to have alienated his bosses.  Why?  His big ideas.  He expected others, his employers among them, to honor and accept his genius.  Not especially ingratiating.

His feminist notions were odd to say the least.  He idolized suffragettes who draped themselves with chains at public protests.  This shows up in his comic books as bondage.  Wonder Woman is repeatedly shown tied or chained, and seems to enjoy it.  There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.

Speaking of bondage, I should confess that I’ve always shrunk from it.  Ditto the cause of martyrdom it so often serves.  So I was less than eager to see Martin Scor sese’s film Silence, in which martyrdom plays the central role.  (In fact, I missed its theatrical run.  It disappeared from theaters in what seemed a couple of weeks.)

When people speak of martyrdom, I recall the nuns at my grammar school praising various saints for making the ultimate sacrifice.  These good women unambiguously told us that, should we ever find ourselves being commanded to reject our faith, we should resist at whatever cost to limb and life.  I’m afraid I couldn’t get with the program.  Whenever it was brought up, I would always imagine that, under officially sanctioned anti-Catholic duress—something that seemed most unlikely in the America of the 1950’s—I would simply play along with the authorities while keeping my fingers crossed.  I thought it would be enough to withhold my consent privately while producing whatever outward show of conformity my tormentors might demand.  I hadn’t yet read Nineteen Eighty-four, in which Winston Smith attempts this strategy with horrific results.  Nor had today’s LGBT dynamos yet availed themselves of Supreme Court rulings to force bakers to knuckle under to their odd beliefs.  To be direct, I hadn’t read enough history, which is replete with tyrants requiring submission to their purposes, however personally repugnant their subjects found them.

Silence is an adaptation of the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s fictionalized account of the trials of Cristóvão Ferreira, the Jesuit missionary who traveled to Japan in 1620.  As the film begins scrolling its credits against a black screen, the soundtrack is abuzz with cicadas, crickets, and soughing surf punctuated with the softly rhythmic crash of waves.  This continues up to the first scene, at which point all goes dead silent as if to imply human ears are deaf to nature’s message of indifference to human concerns.  As a consequence, it follows that we’re left on our own to decide what to believe about our purpose within nature.  This is, of course, at the heart of all religions: How do we find meaning in an existence that seems resolutely determined to ignore us?  It might also be said to be the driving force behind the determination of religions to convert nonbelievers to their various truths.  The more who can be persuaded of your truth, the stronger that truth becomes.  It’s cynical to say, but isn’t this what drives missionaries of whatever faith?  Of course, Christians have the warrant of Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  Their proselytizing is meant to save souls.  Still, the question persists.  Why did European missionaries suppose the peoples of profoundly different cultures such as those of India, China, and Japan would understand the Christian message?  And while we’re at it, why do Muslims think others should bow unquestioningly to Allah?

At first Ferreira’s efforts to convert the Japanese went well.  He was building on the successful missionary efforts begun by St. Francis Xavier in 1549.  Xavier and other missionaries had won over thousands to Catholicism, including some warlords who evidently thought the religion would open their island nation to valuable Western knowledge, especially with regard to technology and trade.  By the time Ferreira arrived, there were an estimated 300,000 Japanese converts to the Faith, a tiny percentage of the population, but the Jesuits thought it boded well for the future of Christianity in the East.  However, shortly after Ferreira arrived, the welcome mat was being rolled up.  The authorities had changed their minds.  They now saw the missionaries as advanced troops preparing the way for a European influence that would engulf their own culture.  The authorities began a ruthless program of eradication.  The Japanese who had converted were ordered to renounce their new faith under pain of torture and death.  To Ferreira’s astonishment many of the converts resisted and paid a gruesome price for their loyalty.  Under this spectacle of inhumanity, Ferreira was alleged to have apostatized.  This was the message that reached the Jesuits in Portugal.  Thinking that the report of Ferreira’s renunciation could only be a malicious rumor, two of Ferreira’s former students, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) go to Japan to uncover the truth.

When the young men arrive in the seaside village of Tomogi, they find themselves confronted with the members of a poor fishing community who, despite persecution, have persisted in their Christian faith in secret.  These simple people are jubilant to see the Jesuits.  The first thing on their minds is to have their confessions heard and receive the Sacraments.  Although they don’t know Ferreira’s whereabouts, they are willing to give what help they can.  After a few days, the local authorities arrive, having been alerted by a Judas in the village.  Realizing their presence has put the peasants in peril, Rodrigues and Garupe decide to leave, but not before witnessing three of the villagers crucified on crosses planted in the shoreline and left to drown as the tide comes in.  Other horrors follow.  Some Christians are burned at the stake, others wrapped in thick straw mats and thrown into the ocean to drown.

Rodrigues is captured and brought before the government’s inquisitor, a sly, insinuating man who seeks to break the Jesuit’s resolve.  He’s wonderfully played by Issey Ogata, who imparts the wit and energy one wishes were more evident in the rest of the movie.  He makes the case that Japan’s soil is not hospitable to Christianity.  He then produces Ferreira in the person of Liam Neeson.  Rodrigues’s former mentor appears to be a dour, broken man.  The conversation that follows is the unsettling crux of the narrative.

The narrative also provides for the Japanese perspective.  The government officials were offended by the apparent arrogance of the Catholic missionaries, many of whom assumed Japan’s culture was inferior to Europe’s and didn’t bother to learn their language, much less their traditions.  What’s more, as members of an hierarchical regime, the Japanese were disturbed to see their peasantry being lured by a faith that respected them as individuals.  This would never do.  East is indeed East, and West West.

This is an ambitious film, raising many questions but resolving few.

Finally, it’s as enigmatic as the cicadas, crickets, and mournful surf heard during the opening-credit sequence.  Maybe this is as it should be in a persistently obscure world.   


[Slideshow image: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gal Gadot & Chris Pine) [CC BY-SA 2.0]]