Martin Scorsese is probably the most venerated film director alive. Therefore, there is little point in writing a review that points tries to point out flaws, or examine any kind of objective value in his latest movie. There is no denying the man’s filmmaking is effective, because it has impressed and meant so much to so many people, even if one doesn’t seem to feel much of anything when watching his movies. That is sadly my case. After years of dancing around the subject, I have finally concluded that Scorsese is not for me (though I really enjoy The Departed, weirdly enough).
Because he enjoys such high status as a master of the craft, I will always be interested in watching whatever he does next. For similar reasons, I have decided to not so much review Silence, as to simply point out how it fits into my overall indifference toward the director’s work. The thesis statement here is that Martin Scorsese’s cinematic interests are diametrically opposed to mine. I haven’t seen all of Scorsese’s work (and I do believe there is a movie of his that will some day gain my adoration), but I’ve seen enough to believe we have completely different world views.
Let’s move on -finally- to the movie at hand. Silence is one of Scorsese’s biggest passion projects. He’s been wanting to make this movie since he read Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name sometime in the eighties. Both novel and film tell the story of a young 17th Century Portuguese priest (here played by Andrew Garfield), who journeys to Japan with a mission. Yes, he is there to spread the gospel of Christ, to deliver His Truth, and to offer salvation to the locals. More specifically, though, he is looking for his master (Liam Neeson), who left for Japan with the intention to evangelize, but is rumored to have given up his faith when confronted with violent persecution on part of the Japanese government.
Once Padre Rodrigues (that’s the name of Garfield’s character) and his colleague Padre Garrpe (the great Adam Driver) step foot on Japan, they are confronted with the miserable reality of being a Christian in that country. Those who converted after visits by previous Padres must keep their faith a secret less they be punished and tortured, yet are extremely happy to once again be in the presence of “real” priests who can perform all holy sacraments and absolve them from their sins through confession.
The happiness doesn’t last long. Soon enough, the persecution catches up to our Padres, and most of the movie deals with how Rodrigues tries to reconcile the extreme suffering he witnesses on a daily basis with the belief that God has a mission for him, and that God is good and will reward those who believe and honor Him. Rodrigues’s faith is tested unflinchingly throughout this two and a half hour movie, and even in the darkest moments, Scorsese provides evidence that he hasn’t given up completely. That his faith will be the last thing to go.
I believe Scorsese -who considered becoming a priest himself at some point in his youth- sees this as an exploration of what it means to believe in the grace of God, of the transcendence of belief beyond sacrifice. These messages are not lost on me, but the package in which they are presented -and my own personal experience with religion, I must admit- prompt me to reject them. I can’t help but see the last shot of this movie not as the small yet significant triumph it is intended to be, but as one last disappointment.
That ending -meant to be beautiful- makes me think of Silence as a tragedy about obstinate men who are unable to negotiate with those who believe something different. That is the thing about faith. It is immovable. And there is dogma. Isn’t there a certain arrogance in these priests and their quest? They come to convert, and the transaction seems to be one-sided. It’s the Europeans delivering “truth” to pagans, without dialogue or exchange. The priests teach their language, but do not learn Japanese. They teach the gospel but have no interest in learning local customs, or understanding Buddhist beliefs.
At the same time, what to make of the Japanese Inquisitor, whose purpose is to exterminate Christianity from his country? He is an obstinate man, too. He is a violent monster, and he is as closed off to debate and exchange -if not more so- than the priests. Of course, he sees the spread of Christianity as a product of a foreign culture creeping into his world. A cultural development that, given our knowledge about colonialism, he is probably right to fear. There has to be a level of irony to his name, knowing that the word Inquisition is most often associated to horrors that were committed on behalf of the Catholic church.
It is hard, then, for me to watch a film about white priests being persecuted in a foreign land, especially when we consider how Judaism and Islam have been treated in the west. Throughout their persecution, these priests are offered the option of renouncing their faith and moving on to a life in Japanese society. A life that -is suggested- will afford them with a level of security, comfort, and respect that most Japanese people wouldn’t be afforded if they tried to integrate to life in European society. It is very clear to me that this film was not intended as an examination of colonialism, but it’s hard not to make parallels.
What this movie is -a tale about clinging to religion and faith throughout extreme circumstances- is far less interesting to me than other aspects that are touched upon but only mildly explored. Say, the intricacies and impossibilities of cultural exchange, the internal conflict and spiritual history of the Japanese Christians, or the tragedy that these must face because of their chosen faith. I see these Japanese believers as the true protagonists of this story. The priests strike me as villains who mean to save but in fact condemn the peasants.
This is what I meant when I said Scorsese and I are just too different. We were both raised in a Catholic environment, but religion meant different things to us. I’ve never felt comfortable in the church, and rejected it as soon as I hit puberty. It’s hard for me to see churches as something other than an enemy to society. I get such visceral reactions to it that I must constantly remind myself that religion is not an inherently bad thing, and that many people are better off because of it.
Maybe I was not prepared to respond to a movie like Silence, which is so narrowly focused on one man’s journey with his faith. I have, in the past, responded positively to movies about religion. I absolutely loved the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! earlier this year, for example. The difference between the movies, of course, is that the Coens examine faith as it relates to modern secularity, setting their movie behind-the-scenes of a trivial Hollywood studio, while Scorsese uses literal Catholic iconography to tell a story about Catholic anguish.
Perhaps I reacted better to Hail, Caesar! because its wager with faith struck me as more balanced. Because it is a movie about balancing the duties of faith with that which gives us pleasure. Silence is much more directly about holding on to faith, and not letting go no matter what is thrown at you. My personal beliefs are not based on faith, but on compromise and questioning. That is why I wouldn’t say Silence is a bad movie. I’d say that it was simply not made for me.