I must say, I was starting to worry about whether Martin Scorsese had sold his soul to the Hollywood media elite after a couple of decades of producing such shameless Disney-fied fluff as The Aviator and Hugo or bloated, pedestrian epics like The Departed and Gangs of New York. But with Silence, a visually haunting historical drama about several Jesuit priests’ struggles between faith and temptation in the face of religious persecution in 17th-century Japan, the veteran director has atoned for his past sins. Not since Goodfellas has Scorsese used his divinely bestowed powers of moral perception to greater effect.
Lovers of Ingmar Bergman’s movies will recognize that the title of his 1963 film The Silence is almost identical to that of Scorsese’s latest opus. And indeed, the two directors are referring to the same type of silence—God’s decision not to reveal himself, interfere in human affairs, or prevent evil. However, whereas Bergman’s film seems a decadent, nihilistic and often aimless back-turning on the divine (in my opinion, it’s one of the Swedish master’s weaker films), Scorsese attempts to shed light on the most difficult mysteries of faith that keep Christians (and Catholics in particular) searching for meaning.
As a lapsed Catholic myself who often struggles with questions of whether belief in God is consistent with the cold realities of reason and science, it was easy for me to identify with the plights of priests such as Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), two Portuguese priests on a mission to find word of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary who has apostasized and left the faith. Under coercion and threat of torture from the Japanese authorities, Ferreira has for the time being chosen self-preservation over divine rapture, becoming a Buddhist monk, taking a Japanese wife, and even writing screed against the Church.
The film never lectures but raises so many of life’s deepest questions. Aren’t we all just like Father Ferreira? Would I have the strength to persevere in my religious beliefs if I saw heads lopped off with samurai swords or innocent people bled to death as they’re dangled upside down? ( I can answer that question with a resounding no; I’d be crying uncle at the first sight of the noose, and I’m not ashamed to admit such cowardice, though perhaps I should be.) Is God truly silent in the world, or does he at times speak to our consciences? How many of us could endure even 15 minutes of excruciating pain as a result of being burned alive, even if our faith is sufficiently strong to believe in an eternity of bliss at Christ’s side? Should we believe Christ’s promise that God will forgive every transgression, even if we step on him and spit on his cross? Such questions are explored in detail, though thankfully never answered. Silence offers no glib analysis or stock interpretations but exhorts us to ponder such questions in the privacy of our own darkened rooms outside the theater.
Yet the film reminds us that even though such questions seem open-ended in light of our limitations, they are ultimately not matters of opinion. When Father Rodrigues speaks before his Japanese captors, he addresses the “universality of truth” in response to the assertions of the inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata), and his toady interpreter (Tadanobu Asano), who claim that Christianity has no place in Japanese culture. Thus, just as certain trees die in the wrong type of soil, the authorities tell us, so Christianity dies in Japan. Rodrigues’s futile attempts to persuade the provincial government function as a microcosm of the film’s efforts to show that the concept of God and its converse—evil or sin—is one that eliminates cultural boundaries. The character at the center of this message of religion’s power to unify is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the Japanese villager who guides the two Jesuits when they first arrive on the islands. In him, we recognize both Peter and Judas from the New Testament. As Peter denies Christ three times, so Kichijiro denies that he is a follower of Christianity. And as Judas betrays Christ for 30 silver pieces, so Kichijiro betrays him for 300. Yet unlike Judas, the wretched sinner returns to Rodrigues to make his confession and set his soul right again. Through such comparisons to the well-known biblical narrative of Christ’s Passion, the film reinforces the notion—which we so often seem to forget in our prejudice and ignorance—that conscience, good, and evil are not cultural-specific abstractions.
Nor are hypocrisy and abuses of government power. Why it should be so threatening to the authorities that a flock of downtrodden Japanese villagers worship Christ instead of buddha seems unfathomable at first—but of course, that’s what governments do: protect established systems, regardless of their moral defensibility. Perhaps such a parochial mindset can partially be attributed to a particular brand of Japanese xenophobia, yet the rulers in ancient Rome were just as guilty of persecution of Christians—chief among them Nero, who is often seen by believers as one of the earliest antichrist figures. Indeed, Ogata’s portrayal of Masashige, what with his disarming little smirks and effeminate gait and speech, reminded me a bit of the sexually depraved, ineffectual Nero (or maybe Caligula, since Nero was reputedly fatter). Who knows? Maybe Masashige slept with his mother too.
In stark contrast to the distorted caprices of Masashige, Asano’s interpreter speaks with the unwavering voice of tradition. As opposed to Masahige’s oblique insinuations, the interpreter’s approach is a masculine, aggressive, martial approach to convincing his captives of their “errors”—in short, he is a devoted mouthpiece for the warrior culture he represents.
The expert performances of these two Japanese actors help keep the somewhat overlong screenplay, which is generally well-crafted but a bit nondescript, from succumbing to ponderousness. Their English counterparts—Garfield, Driver, and Neeson—are all creditable but could at times convey greater conviction. From Neeson, in particular, I expected a bit more of a sinister vibe to elicit the evil that befalls those who give in to temptation, but his facial expression and the tone of his voice remain rather blank, even when he’s taunting Rodrigues and trying to convince him of the pragmatism of apostasy given the exigency of the circumstances.
Any small gripes I have, however, are quickly forgotten when I remember the acuity of Scorsese’s vision with a camera. Silence revels in the power of imagery to shock, soothe, and provoke contemplation. Mists are a frequent motif, frequently appearing at moments of uncertainty—such as when the priests try to evade capture. We’re also reminded of water’s power as both a destructive and regenerative force when three Japanese converts to Christianity are crucified on the beach and left to drown as the tides sweep in. Their bodies may be swept out to sea, but their souls are swept into the blue yonder. And despite the inevitable moments of brutality, such as the sudden beheading of one of the Christian converts, Scorsese never lets the work devolve into a gorefest; the violence depicted is therefore all the more powerful. In this way, Silence sharply differs from Mel Gibson’s controversial Passion of the Christ, which, though equally cogent in its raw approach to Christ’s suffering, frequently overindulged in bloodlust.
Perhaps most striking of all are Scorsese’s God’s-eye aerial views. The man upstairs takes in the whole of human industry and folly, looking on as the two priests set off on their journey to the Japanese islands or the inquisitor sneers and lisps with sinister derision. Such overhead perspectives seem a metaphor for the filmmaker’s (or any artist’s for that matter) creative process, whose success paradoxically depends on both the Promethean hubris of elevating oneself to the level of observational omniscience and the humility of suppressing one’s personal agenda for the sake of narrative integrity.
After this courageous defense of Christian values in an era of scoffing and indifference, it will be interesting to see what direction the aging Scorsese, now well into his 70s, will take in his declining years. Whatever the talented director’s next project may be, it seems likely that Silence, with its perspicacious contemplation of the hereafter, will forever be seen as Scorsese’s swansong.
Joe’s Grade: A-