Editor’s Note: Silence is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
There’s a moment in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s (Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ) decades-in-the-making adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s prize-winning1966 novel, when the central character, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit priest on a spiritual and physical journey in 17th Japan, gazes into a stream, finding both his reflection (expected) and an image of Jesus Christ (unexpected) overlaid over his own. To some, it’s a crude, even cringe-worthy attempt by Scorsese to connect Rodrigues’s potential martyrdom with Christ, a misstep or slip-up by one of our greatest living filmmakers, subtext turned blinding, obvious text, nuanced ambiguity exchanged for blunt (overt clarity), but it’s far more than a misstep or slip-up (if, in fact, it’s either). The image of Christ reflects Father’s Rodrigues’s self-image, he’s a man on a righteous, religious mission to bring the word, the Gospel of Christ to Japan, elevating his life, his meaning, beyond that of a mere man to something closer to divinity. It’s also an egotistical, narcissistic self-perception, one Scorsese dissembles with precise, sharp strokes over the course of Silence’s two-hour, 40-minute running time.
Silence turns on a clash of nations and cultures, of ideologies, each one as rigid, inflexible, and authoritarian as the other, with Father Rodrigues and Ichizo, among others, as metaphorical stand-ins for their respective ideologies.
Silence, however, doesn’t open with Father Rodrigues, but another Jesuit priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), sent to Japan to proselytize, to convert the Japanese and care for the already converted. The Father Ferreira we meet, however, is already a broken man, forced to witness the cruel, sadistic torture of Japanese Christians by Japan’s ruling class. To Japan’s feudal rulers, Father Ferreira and the non-Japanese religion he represents isn’t just a foreign, noxious annoyance to be mocked or derided, but an existential threat to the Japanese as a people and Japan as a nation. Christianity represents a threat that must be eliminated root (Jesuit priests) and branch (Japanese Christians). The Japanese authorities leave Father Ferreira a singularly stark choice, apostatize and openly, reject Christianity, serving as a fallen symbol to the few remaining priests and their dwindling followers, or face certain extinction (his and theirs). The question of apostasy hangs over both Ferreira and later Rodrigues when he’s captured too.
The torture and martyrdom Father Rodrigues expects from his captors doesn’t come, however. The inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), who becomes his chief captor and tormentor recognizes Father Rodrigues’s pride, his hubris and patiently waits him out, grinding him down both through dialogue that emphasizes the impossibility of Christianity existing in Japan in any form and the choice he gives Rodrigues: He puts the lives of the Christian converts in Father Rodrigues’s hands, earthly salvation (theirs) in exchange for eternal damnation (his). It’s a choice that turns on Father Rodrigues’s evolving understanding of himself, his identity as a Christian and a priest, and the limits and boundaries of his faith. Paradoxically rejecting Christianity potentially becomes something else, the ultimate act of empathy and compassion. Faith doesn’t turn on an outward show of adherence to a specific set of rituals, but on internal belief and actions in accordance with those beliefs.
To call Silence a masterpiece might be premature (only time, reflection, and repeat viewings will do that), but to call it essential, vital filmmaking isn’t.
There’s more, of course, to Silence. It turns on a clash of nations and cultures, of ideologies, each one as rigid, inflexible, and authoritarian as the other (Europe’s wars of religion pitting Catholicism versus Protestantism were a 17th century reality, not distant memories of another, less enlightened era), with Father Rodrigues and Ichizo, among others, as metaphorical stand-ins for their respective ideologies. Even laced with arrogance and hubris, Father Rodrigues’s “good” intentions are never in question. They’re well-meaning, earnest, honestly held. That those beliefs function as cover for Western Europe’s colonialist, imperialist intentions never seem to cross Father Rodrigues’s mind, but they certainly do his captors. Ultimately, their use of violence might be morally and ethically wrong and thus unjustifiable, but suppression and repression worked, all but eliminating Western influence and protecting Japanese territorial and cultural sovereignty.
Scorsese leaves the question of sympathy and identification where it belongs, with the audience. Silence seems to share little with Scorsese’s last film, The Wolf of Wall Street, and not just the time period or setting. The deliberate, meditative pacing, the long, idea-heavy dialogue scenes between captor and captured, the brief, but no less brutal bouts of violence all suggest a director consciously making a film in opposition to his last effort, but Scorsese’s taste for the visually operatic, for complex, contradictory characters and attendant ambiguity (i.e., the depiction vs. endorsement argument that followed The Wolf of Wall Street’s release), his use of sound (or silence in this case) remain as strong as ever. To some, however, Silence will be seen as the anti-Wolf of Wall Street, self-consciously serious film by a world-class filmmaker that fails to entertain as it tries to enlighten or educate. That conclusion, however, would miss not just a sincere exploration of religious faith, but a thematically rich, rewarding one that fully deserves post-screening discussion. To call Silence a masterpiece might be premature (only time, reflection, and repeat viewings will do that), but to call it essential, vital filmmaking isn’t.
Martin Scorsese’s taste for the visually operatic and complex, contradictory characters is on full display in Silence, a sincere, thematically rich, and rewarding exploration of religious faith.