This review contains spoilers.
I went to see Silence, the latest film by Martin Scorcese, woefully unprepared. I did not grow up with Scorcese’s past films, with the significant exception of The Last Waltz, and while it seems clear that Academy members had to give Scorcese an award at some point in his career, I wish they had not done so for The Departed. (In my shallow way I liked the slick Hong Kong original, Infernal Affairs, much better; it was certainly funnier.)
In short, I am not a Scorcese buff. Nor had I, or have I since seeing the film, read the novel by Shūsaku Endō, a contemporary of Graham Greene, who is in some ways an instructive parallel to Endō as another mid-century Roman Catholic novelist. Both Greene and Endō are concerned with the strange cousinship that exists between faith and betrayal, blasphemy, and doubt; faith for both novelists is inflected by the questions posed by existentialism. That is about the extent of my knowledge; as a reviewer I can only claim general literacy, cinematic and theological, and I can only speak of my general reactions to the film. I hope that this is a plus: it is a rare thing for a director of Scorcese’s stature to make a serious, earnest, deeply personal film about religion, and so most assessments of the work that I have seen have come from those already steeped in the oeuvre. This is the view from the cheap seats.
Silence is primarily the story of one Portuguese priest, Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), one of two Jesuits who have volunteered to go into 17th-century Japan to discover the truth of what has happened to their erstwhile mentor, Fr. Christovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Japan was not “open” to the West, and was reluctant to admit of the claims of any faith that also claimed social and cultural superiority. While Christianity had indeed arrived and initially spread and attracted large numbers of converts, it was now banned by the authorities, and those converts were forced to recant and to abjure their faith in a ceremony involving trampling on images of Christ and the Virgin.
Priests made particularly useful and attractive prizes to the government; at the beginning of the film, Fr. Ferreira has been captured and, under torture (or so the rumor has it), has become an apostate. His two young friends refuse to believe the rumor and are given reluctant permission by their superior to enter Japan. This is no easy task. First they must find a guide, the drunk Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yosuke), who leads them to Japanese Christians who continue, although themselves in desperate poverty, to preserve their faith in hiding. Immensely moved by the faith of these simple villagers, the priests initially remain with them but, eventually, become impatient with their confinement and inevitably come to the attention of the authorities.
What happens next deliberately and sardonically echoes the story early Christians told (and tell) of themselves in the face of Roman torture and persecution: martyrdom. But in Endō’s Japan it is no foregone conclusion that the blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the Church. In Silence, Japan rots what is planted in its soil, and the priests endanger those to whom they minister: abjuration of their faith is the only way to save innocent lives, and the only way to keep the faith is to betray it.
The truly Christian way is to become Judas.
I found Silence to be a really difficult film, although there are moments that are genuinely profound and moving. The last half hour in particular is worth the price of admission; that said, several people walked out of the screening I was in and did not make it that far. I do not like watching extended scenes of violence, particularly torture, on screen: I have to this day refused to watch The Passion of the Christ. Although I knew what I was getting into and Scorcese is a different class of filmmaker than Mel Gibson, that does not make it any easier.
The film is very subtly scored, with long stretches of, well, silence and purely natural sounds; there is no softening or escaping the violence on screen that way. That means, however, that one’s system is desperately seeking relief by hour three. As a result, in a film that plays itself very straight with the exception of the character of Kichijiro, things have a tendency to become unexpectedly funny simply because one is in a state of sensory overload. When Liam Neeson finally, belatedly, appeared on screen, my mind went straight to the Taken films and to Batman Begins and refused to take him seriously. The truly extraordinary performances of the Japanese actors, the world-wise inquisitors (Tadanobu Asanu and Issei Ogata), also land in this comic uncanny valley, sometimes through no fault of their own.
When Scorcese made The Wolf of Wall Street, the English film critic Mark Kermode’s central problem with the film was that he did not feel that Scorcese distinguished clearly enough between the characters’ understanding of their actions and what one might call the authorial voice behind those characters. In a film that encyclopedically detailed the excesses of the Wall Street lifestyle, it was not clear whether Scorcese disapproved of, celebrated, or merely depicted that lifestyle; this was problematic for Kermode, particularly with regard to how the film portrayed its female characters. In a related vein, Scorcese’s children’s film, Hugo, is a hymn in praise of the external mechanics of early silent cinema; Scorcese is a very technical filmmaker who is highly literate in the history of his chosen art form. (He does genre film very well for this reason.) Much of this technical brilliance is put to glorious use in Silence, in both composition and in execution: Scorcese knows and loves his Japanese cinema. But Scorcese, for good and for ill, has a tendency to become absorbed and invested in the surface of the story he is telling, and to elide his directorial sympathies with those of his central characters.
As with The Wolf of Wall Street, this is a problem for Silence because Rodrigues is apparently a much more ambivalent figure in Endō’s novel than Scorcese’s portrayal would lead one to believe, and in a strange way — for me, anyway — this throws off the entire trajectory of the film. In the novel, Rodrigues is poised between the sincere and well-meaning but dogmatic faith that he brings to Japan and the faith that he finds there, clinging desperately to the mercy of Christ in the midst of continual and repeated betrayal. He moves from confusing his ministry and mission with that of Christ to recognizing that he is not and never was Christ, but is Judas.
The problem does not lie in the casting — Garfield gives a powerful and perfectly competent performance, if perhaps almost too empathetic for his own good — but Scorcese does not sufficiently signal the audience that Rodrigues’s empathy is mixed with pride. When one eventually hears such accusations, they are placed in the mouths of his Japanese inquisitors; what Scorcese thinks, or what Endō thinks, is never made clear. In one scene a slightly delirious Rodrigues sees the reflection of Christ in a rock pool. In the novel, by all accounts, it is clear that this is a sign of a Messiah complex, a delusion of grandeur, but to my innocent eyes I saw the scene only as a consoling vision of a suffering Christ appearing to his faithful follower, and only learned of the alternative interpretation later. Ironically, Scorcese’s very sympathy for the conflicted Rodrigues makes the rest of the film, if not incomprehensible, then at least more difficult to follow: How is one supposed to understand him in relation to his fellow Jesuit, Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver), or to the villagers, or to the guide Kichijiro, or to the inquisitors? Scorcese seems reluctant to help us. This lack of obvious internal moral compass, coupled with an already absurd scenario dominated by a false and grotesque moral choice, creates a vacuum that the violence and the torture tend to fill.
But the end, though: hang in there. It’s worth the wait.