If we can take Martin Scorsese’s varied film career as a reflection of the human experience, then his completion of his long-awaited passion project Silence is not all that surprising. He’s crafted numerous classics, countless cultural touchstones, some spiritual, some historical, and some incredibly honest. But at this point in his career it seems like he has nothing left to prove to us as his audience and maybe at this point in life, if nothing else, we could do well to try and learn from someone like him. Because given the climate with funding and the like, Scorsese could not have made such a film just for other people or money or acclaim. He must have made it, at least partially, for himself.
There’s no question that his life has been tough at times, even taking him to the brink of death, and in Silence, we see a period tale that touches on everything that is thought-provoking and all that is paramount in life. Man has long wrestled with God. Jacob did it literally in the narrative of Genesis. Nothing is new under the sun in a sense. And Scorsese by way of Shusaku Endo is doing a truly remarkable thing to consider these very questions. I admire him for having the wherewithal to even begin to tackle this material.
Coincidentally this is also a very faithful adaptation of Endo’s novel and so rather than recount the entire plot, my best advice is to read Endo for yourself and watch Scorsese’s own musing on the text afterward. But for those who don’t know, Silence is a fictionalized account based on true events involving two 17th century Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garppe (Adam Driver) who head to Japan in order to spread their Christian faith–a faith that already has approximately 300,000 believers. Their mission is twofold as well, to track down their illustrious mentor Father Fereira (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have apostatized.
However, their beloved faith is under fierce attack by the Japanese magistrate and for good reason. As articulated by the oddly compelling and strangely comical antagonist Inoue, foreign missionaries sometimes come to Japan like jealous women looking to steal the country away. They often are lacking cultural understanding meaning their message is neither contextualized or delivered in such a way that is helpful to the people. Is the message missionaries brought even the same anymore or do they simply trust that it will reach the people as they intended?
But delve into this issue and doubters can beg the question, can the Truth (capital T) be universal? There are certain similarities between religions. From a cursory level, you can either draw up the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism or cast them far apart. Father Ferreira finally conceded that doing good is enough. It leads to human flourishing but also to the detriment of his previous beliefs. And that’s only the one conflict.
Silence delivers numerous other tough questions to any viewer who is willing to consider them. How do you equate personal suffering versus the suffering of others? If to die a martyr is what some call Christ-like, to let others die for you could easily be called selfish and weak.
Still, is recanting Christ, the core of these missionaries’ belief system, worth it for the safety and well-being of others? The answer seems simple and yet somehow still so divisive. Most importantly of all, and potentially the most volatile and insidious question of all is this: Can you still be worthy of love if you have doubted, turned away, or committed evil? That is the central question at the heart of Silence.
In different ways, Scorsese’s film brings to mind droves of others from the likes of Bergman and Dreyer but the polarities of the emotions are more pronounced here and somehow the nuances still manage to be incredibly subtle. Bergman’s The Silence already seems to assume God is out of the equation entirely. Ordet takes the spiritual doubts of mankind and culminates in a miraculous crescendo of hope. Scorsese’s work strikes a tougher middle ground. And for that matter, this film is undoubtedly rough going. It’s long, pensive, and unsettling.
The heroes do not arrive at some Oscar-worthy self-actualization. Violence is not some entertaining cathartic release. On the contrary, these characters are at times pitiful–even the dregs–and the violence is methodical and repetitive like a deluge of ocean waves beating us back.
But as such, this is not a film to stew in or even a film to view alone. It is meant to be seen together, ruminated over in tandem, and considered with a certain amount of thoughtfulness. It asks for its viewer to be open, to be aware, and if need be, do their own amount of soul-searching. Are there questions that you’ve never been willing to confront? And this goes for anyone from any type of background, belief, or point of view.
For the spiritual, this undoubtedly would be a tough picture because it confronts their doubts head-on. For those who do not consider themselves all that religious, it throws you right into the dilemma of fallible man and demands you at least consider the problems therein.
Thus, to call it slow or plodding completely circumvents the entire point. Such an assertion strips this film of its power which is derived from the very audacity of its silence. The way in which Garfield practically whispers his dialogue in voiceover. How there is hardly ever a score because Scorsese takes his title seriously. He’s not about to disrupt the novel’s power with Hollywood expectations. Silence can be just as powerful as noise if not more so. Some would argue that is the very power of the God of the Bible. It’s these very paradoxes that run through Endo’s entire novel.
The humility of the Japanese throughout the film is astounding and the utter hopelessness of the priests at times is equally telling. It flips the savior paradigm that we expect. The most substantive example is the Japanese guide Kochijiro and Father Rodrigues. The Father sees the other as the Judas figure, the betrayer, and yet he is Peter. He too has denied the one who loves him most. They’re no different. Except Kochijiro is far more aware of his shortcomings–there’s no pretense to think he is Christ-like. He is humbled just as we can be humbled by the sheer boldness of Silence.