Film reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Martin Scorsese's Silence

by James Pate


Martin Scorsese, Silence, 2016. 161 min.


Pray! But those Christians are partaking of a terrible suffering such as you cannot even understand. From yesterday—in the future—now at this very moment. Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them.

-from Silence by Shusaku Endo (translated by William Johnston)


Martin Scorsese's film Silence is one of the most openly religious mainstream movies to appear since Mel Gibson's infamous The Passion of the Christ (2004), and the two films share a similar worldview. Both are extremely Catholic in theme and vision, drawing on the vast repertoire of Catholic art, and both place their Catholicism within a world of catastrophic anguish and physical torture—a world, in other words, that desperately needs otherworldly salvation. These Hollywood films have little in common with the sunnier, simpler religious films of previous generations, movies like The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and Going My Way (1944) that seem to have been made as much for children as for adults. It's hard to imagine Scorsese's Silence or Gibson's Passion being shown at a Sunday school without reducing the class to tears and screaming. 

Scorsese's film, however, is more nuanced than Gibson's. For all of the violence in Silence (burnings, drownings, crucifixions), the real drama is interior, as the title suggests. The main character, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), is at times consumed by questions and doubt. In a world where God does not strike sinners down with bolts of lightning, in a world dominated by God's silence, how is a believer to keep the faith? If God does not speak to us, how do we know how to speak with God?  

The film is exceptionally faithful to Shusaku Endo's novel Chinmoku, at least by Hollywood book-to-film standards. Two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe (Adam Driver), travel from Portugal to Japan in search of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a famed teacher and missionary rumoured to have renounced his faith in the face of torture. Silence is about the tragic outcomes of this quest.

There are, though, two main differences between film and novel. The torture inflicted upon the Christians in the novel is occasionally even more extreme than in the film. Both novel and film open with a scene of Catholics being burned by water from a "seething lake," but only in the novel are a woman and her daughter stripped and burned as well. The other difference is that the novel spends more time detailing the religious debates between Rodrigues and the Buddhist characters. The fine prints of both religions are brought out in a novel-of-ideas style reminiscent of Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima. At one point in Endo's novel, the priest even begins to espouse Aquinas' cosmological argument for God in an effort to sway his interpreter. Yet, as the novel makes clear, such moments are not interfaith dialogues. For Endo's characters, there is no middle ground between Catholicism and Buddhism. The benevolent theological generosity of the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis is alien to their worldview. (To Scorsese's credit, he does include more philosophical discussions than is usually seen in mainstream films. Still, Silence would never be mistaken for a movie in the My Dinner with Andre [1981] vein.)

Overall, Silence is an example of how pervasively religion tints our worldview. From a secular point of view, religion is primarily political; from a believer's vantage point, it is metaphysical. Silence is a film made by a believer, and as such, little of the film deals with the colonial aspect of the Catholic Church's fascination, even obsession, with Japan during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. From watching the film, you would have no sense of the Church's history of persecution and violence, and the mind-set of the inquisition is entirely absent from the film's vision of Catholicism. These priests want to save souls, not pave the way for conquest.

In Scorsese's movie, heaven and hell are not symbolic spaces. Not only do the Catholic characters take heaven and hell quite literally, but so, it seems, does the film itself. The Jesuits in Silence are gaunt, dedicated men who believe that the unsaved will be damned. The film, for the most part, reinforces this vision they have of themselves by continually having the Driver and Garfield characters make sacrifices for the Japanese Catholics, risking life and imprisonment and torture in order to visit various clandestine Catholic communities. They carry no weapons, dress in ragged clothes and are awed by the devotion of the Catholics in Japan. It would be difficult to imagine a more a benevolent image of Jesuit missionaries. 

And yet, because this is Scorsese, the film never devolves into religious kitsch. The film is visually captivating, clearly influenced by Caravaggio's use of chiaroscuro and El Greco's fascination with stoically enigmatic facial expressions. There are also a few rare moments in the movie where the selfless devotion of the priests is cast into doubt. Garfield's Rodrigues is fascinated by the image of Jesus, and midway through the film, he sees that image staring back at him as he looks into a pool of water. The film allows us to decide for ourselves if it is a holy vision, or an instance of almost lunatic narcissism. (The face of Christ witnessed by Rodrigues in the scene is from El Greco, too.) And during one of the best scenes in Silence—the first confrontation between Rodrigues and Ferreira—Rodrigues asks Ferreira who the Japanese Catholics have died for if not for God, to which Ferreira simply answers, "For you." The power of the priesthood has a controversial history (a contemporary critique of that power may be found in Garry Wills' provocative book Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition [2014]), and Scorsese does occasionally explore the idea of the Jesuits being drunk on their status as diplomats between the earthly and the divine.

The character of Kichijiro (played wonderfully by Yƍsuke Kubozuka) complicates the film, too, just as he does the novel. In both, he is presented as cowardly and scheming, someone who moves between intense religious faith and an overwhelming fear of torture. For Endo and Scorsese, Kichijiro represents the tradition of not only Judas (who betrayed Jesus, but then regretted it and hanged himself so violently, according to tradition, that his entrails tore from his body), but also Peter, who denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest, but then wept in guilt over the incident. If Rodrigues often seems to already live partially in the afterlife, Kichijiro is a figure of this world, tormented by familial loss and drawn to money and physical comfort (or at least utterly fearful of physical pain).

While watching Silence for the first time, I kept thinking of a very different film about Catholicism in Japan—Norifumi Suzuki's School of the Holy Beast (1974). On a surface level, no two films could be more contrasting in tone (one aiming for high art, the other going for shock and titillation) and pacing (Silence is all slow-moving gravitas, while School jumps frantically from scene to scene, like many exploitation films). And nobody would ever say Suzuki was trying to make a profound movie, as Scorsese is attempting to do with Silence. But School, like Silence, is drawn to Catholic imagery and Catholic notions of faith so deeply physical they border on the carnal. True, Suzuki's film is anti-Catholic, portraying it as a loony cult. And yet, just as atheistic French writers like Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault were writing under the influence of Catholicism, so to does Suzuki use intense Catholic imagery for his own defiant ends.

And Suzuki's film contains elements missing from Silence—playfulness, weirdness, Eros, brashness. Scorsese's best movies, works like Mean Streets (1973) and New York, New York (1977) and Goodfellas (1990), burst with off-the-cuff dynamism. Their narratives do not so much build as ricochet, held together not by thematic development but by the soundtrack and Scorsese's directorial audacity. His Silence, for all of its rapturous pageantry, does not burn with the same fire. Silence would be a better film if it were not trying to be such a great film.


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