Scorsese’s other films seemed to be coming to this. His filmography is littered with the desperate passions of men struggling with degrees of incapacitating personal atonement, and of a Christ complex – men taking the sins of the world upon themselves, only to fail, and then succumb to exile. For Scorsese, and for any Christian, this is an acknowledgment of our fallen state, and the impetus of the Faith: the strange humility necessary to give up one’s fears, desires, and sins to a Higher Power. This is the moral of The Last Temptation of Christ, sure, but is also evident as early as Mean Streets, and followed by Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Departed; Goodfellas, Shutter Island, and Raging Bull are variations on the theme. Silence, therefore, is a passion project in the true use of the word, a witness to a master artist’s lifelong (and truly felt at times) painful examination of the Problem of Evil in a world that also consists of Christianity – which presupposes an active, personal and righteous God. For God is Love, and if God so loved the world, why does He allow for the suffering of any of His creatures, especially His faithful?
Silencefollows Jesuit Fr. Rodrigues (a surprisingly convincing Andrew Garfield), and briefly, his compatriot Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver), to 17th century Japan in pursuit of their mentor and spiritual leader, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who rumor has it has apostatized (or, formally renounced his Faith, a word repeated enough to explain a bit) and “lives as a Japanese” – a religious shame with a racial tinge. (“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His Grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”) Not believing such a thing could ever possibly be the case and to save Fr. Ferreira excommunication, a fate worse than death, Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe stow away in secret to the isolationist nation of Japan, now hostile to Christianity. In one of the film’s many subtle ironies, they recruit the meek Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke), an apostate with his own spiritual struggles, to lead their way.
When I read Endo Shusaku’s original novel years ago, I felt echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness and its companion novel, H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau – after viewing Silence, a comparison to both novels still holds up well to Scorsese’s vision of the material. Particularly, in Wells’ tale, of a Man who believed himself to be a God – and part-way through, is killed, so the Outsider bears witness to the social ramifications of his Creation. Fr. Ferreira is, by the time Fr. Rodrigues finally finds him, a nonentity; and the last half of the film explores the spiritual as well as social consequences of Christianity in Japan – a struggle of this civilization forever tainted by a foreign faith. The film, and the novel, justifiably ignores the political and social background justifying the savagery against Christianity, for the better, creating a nihilism and dread required to explore the problem of indiscriminate evil with greater potency. But a historical context for the Kakure Kirishitans can still inform a reading of the film. The city of Nagasaki, the final location of both Fr. Rodrigues’ and Fr. Ferreira’s Jesuit walkabouts, was an insignificant port city until the Portuguese Missionaries came, and soon became a heart of both international commerce and spirituality in Japan – so the irony of the location as their spiritual graveyard is uniquely charged. Without the Missionaries’ presence, Nagasaki might be just another small seaside farming village. Now, the bustling port of trade is a religious prison. For the modern viewer, Nagasaki is an apocalypse: a city of atomic death, ironically, one brought about by a Western power that did not agree with Japan’s methods. Both perspectives resonate into a reading of the film.
The film’s title leaves out yet implies the operative, capital “G:” God’s Silence, and this all-encompassing, laser-focused centrality on hard spiritual questions makes for a film that has virtually no appeal to a mainstream audience (evidenced by the film’s bleak box office returns). Paramount had no idea how to market the film, which is both surprising, and not at all. Surprising: in that the film had an initial screening at the Vatican, and was met with cautious optimism by the faithful in attendance. Silencehad a potential to appeal to the “Christian audience” kept at an arm’s distance but still begrudgingly pursued by the Hollywood elite after the financial success of The Passion of the Christ and American Sniper. Not surprising: because this is a deeply cynical spiritual film. Its magnification of death, torture, and spirituality – narratively fueled, let’s face it, by a nationalist fervor against foreign ideas, and minority religious views – apparently has no place in the worldwide sociopolitical echo-chamber currently found in America and the UK. Ironically, the “sleeper believers” participating in the current political discourse are arguably the English-speaking audiences most likely to see the film, but least likely to care.
Which is too bad, because Silenceis consummate if not defining work by a master filmmaker at the top of his craft; and I would also argue, at the top of his thematic and symbolic interests. Scorsese’s casting of the Japanese cast, in particular, needs emphasis because their stories carry the film – directly reflecting Fr. Rodrigues’ stages of uncertainty, faith and anguish. First, the guide: The audience I was with in the theater laughed at almost every entrance of the hapless Kichijiro, which I think is telling. Kichijiro is a kind of Gollum to Frodo – an active, perverse reflection of the effects of sin. Fr. Rodrigues sees himself – perhaps more than he cares to admit – in the hapless Kichijiro, who also represents the very human instinct to survive, at constant odds with the consequences of belief. (“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”) Kichijiro’s appearances at the most inopportune moments, and outlandish actions, for a believer can be interpreted as sin – showing up when we least expect it, shaming us by its tenacity, and humbling us by its consequence.Tsukamoto Shinya’s performance as humble Mokichi anchors the second part of the film, and is as good as any in the classic films he himself directed. And in contrast to Kichijiro, Mokichi reflects the best of Fr. Rodrigues’ faith, before Japan’s cultural and spiritual estrangement starts to eat away at his soul. Mokichi’s unwavering belief is possibly the only evidence of such a thing in a film about the subject, and perhaps as a consequence, only his character is given a Christ-like death. (On a cross, beaten by the tide, his last words entreat God to allow his dead companion a place in Heaven. If memory serves, he lives on the cross for three days – a potent number.) Although it is unsaid, his death rattles Fr. Rodrigues to the foundation of his faith, as if the false purity of the priest’s religion dies with the martyr.
For the functional remainder of the film, Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer himself) feeds Fr. Rodrigues the seeds of doubt plucked from the metsuke (“inquisitor”, again: an irony), the dreaded, infamous and rather affable Christian persecutor, Inoue Masashige. (Issey Ogata slays the performance – he clearly alludes to the historical character Inoue’s rumored homosexuality, without ever going there. One particular deflating of tension steals an entire sequence.) During Rodrigues’ imprisonment, he is allowed to minister to his flock in prison, but remains powerless to free them of their physical suffering. Rodrigues is seemingly blind to this rather refined form of psychological torture; all the better to lead him to his eventual apostasy. On that subject, some have written that Liam Neeson is underutilized and “wasted” by his limited performance, here – but I think that’s the point. He will not find you, he will not kill you – Neeson plays Fr. Ferreira / Sawano Chūan as a man of fortitude and ferocity forever sapped of clear potential.But the thematic crux of Silenceis carried by Andrew Garfield – whose documented Jesuit crash-course deeply affected his real, personal spiritual Walk. It shows. His is the great Scorsese spiritual impulse: mistaking his responsibility as a shepherd of his flock with God’s ultimate sovereignty, and collapsing under the weight. (“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”) His self-centeredness is slyly emphasized by the film’s internalized narrative style; with a casual narration, formally lifted from Endo’s novel. This formal style is convenient for a proper dwelling on the intangibility of faith and belief – or, what something invisible and personal ultimately looks like. Can religion still be unspoiled by stepping on the fumi-e, or through resistance? Is it found in excommunication or rebellion? The face of Christ, shown repeatedly in an unnerving El Greco closeup, is eventually seen in Fr. Rodrigues’ own reflection in the water. God is but an Echo, and Fr. Rodrigues shares the fate of Narcissus.
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”The final reveal – in the context of the overall stoical film, an audacious push into burning flames, revealing the hidden character of the dead, former priest – is the kind of privilege only allowed to God. It is an odd moment in an otherwise opaque film. This may be meta, and perhaps intellectual overreach, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the camera may act in the place of God (a device Scorsese has used before, particularly in the sweeping opening shot of The Last Temptation of Christ). The implications of this, given the themes of Silence, are profound. After all, the camera, the method of cinema, cannot speak; but it bears silent witness to the atrocities against these Kakure Kirishitans. It peers into the souls of the priests, feels their loneliness, and hears Fr. Rodrigues’ prayers. If the audience, through cinematic technique, bears witness to the Silence as God in the film, then there is, somewhere, a level of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual interaction. This reading also validates the curious voiceover that – may – have a Divine origin. (An Echo?: “I was with you, always.”) The evidence of Divine voiceover enhances the central mystery of why Evil persists, if God might also.
Ultimately, I came away from Silence not only mulling over these questions, but reflecting on my own belief, asking whether our current absence of religious conflict in our precocious, privileged Western world has softened or cheapened the impact of the experience of religion. (“”I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.””) Staying with that thought, I also reflected on the persecuted Christians of our present day – in Egypt and China and Syria; and the current oppression of other faiths in similarly oppressive regimes. Still, faith is met with a guarantee of violence. So although Silence dwells in the past, it draws attention to the present. Scorsese’s film may just then be a masterpiece, directing the silent but affected audience to a pandemic, timeless trait of what it means to be human: to believe, to suffer, and against all hope, to empathize.