“In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand” –Bob Dylan
Martin Scorsese is a bold and courageous director, bursting with creative impulses. He has long since mastered the camera as an outlet for his unique way to express those impulses. With his lifelong editor-in-chief, Thelma Schoonmaker, cleaning up the stitches and smoothing the edges, their trusted collaboration means that when he goes fast, she is one step ahead. But when he slows way down, as he does here, she can match his pace so, at times, you might not even recognize this film as signature Scorsese.
Scorsese’s Silence is deceptively about the struggle to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine. An adaptation of the Tanizaki Prize-winning novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence takes place in 17th century Japan, where Catholicism was outlawed after national reunification. Those who still believed were forced to renounce their beliefs, else be tortured and persecuted until they did.
The first part of Silence is indeed about that spiritual dilemma. It seems as if the story is being told from the point of view of a Jesuit priest, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who has been sent from Portugal to Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared and believed to have repudiated his faith. In the eyes of Rodrigues, the Japanese soldiers appear to be monsters, out for blood and consumed with hatred toward the cross and the Church.
If mankind has one redeeming trait that forgives its inherent evil, it is our capacity for compassion. Compassion for others, even for animals, is often what separates good people from bad people. These conflicting forces exist within Rodrigues, who struggles with his compassionate need to save lives versus his almost biological instinct to defend his faith and his fervent love for Christ.
Captured by the Japanese, his only chance to survive and avoid torture is to tread on an carved image of Jesus. If he steps on the face of Christ then he will be released — and, more importantly, other prisoners will be set free. He could save their lives if he would agree to the one thing he cannot do.
At this point, an hour or so into the story, film switches perspective. The viewpoint detaches from Father Rodrigues and rises to be more omniscient, becoming the movie we came to see. Rich with symbolism and hyper-realism, Silence leads us through lengthy scenes where we watch and listen to men on each side of this cultural chasm make their case. We bear witness to devout and zealous individuals talking to one another in quiet but persistent conversations about the meaning of religion in essentially disparate societies — but above and beyond than that, exploring the imposition of religion on the lives of mankind. As it has us watch deeply honorable men sacrifice their lives and endure enormous suffering for their love of one man, the film gets to one of its core questions: at what cost devotion? Who benefits? What is the point of it all? Personally, I began to think about politics and the way we are willing to do so much harm, even as far dehumanizing each other, all in the name of a cause or an unbending devotion to someone who leads that cause.
It is my own cynical interpretation, perhaps intrinsic to my atheistic stance, to see any and all religious oppression as a horrible thing — no matter whose religion it may be. Silence is a film that made me rethink my own way of interfacing with questions of faith, particularly as its message seemed to me to be this: faith in its purest definition is something profoundly personal, and can never be foisted upon us or decided for us by anyone other than ourselves.
Garfield’s Father Rodrigues is tormented by his moral obligation to save people who suffer and his spiritual obligation to his God, whose “silence” gives him no guidance. God’s silence confounds us. For some it remains an inscrutable but wondrous mystery; for others it is a severe refusal to answer our entreaties. But every person of faith must find his or her own path to interpretation, to reconcile the quandary however we choose. At some point, for many whose faith has been shaken or shattered altogether, it can begin to look like narcissism, this devotion to a selfish, righteous God who prioritizes absolute fidelity over the sparing of lives. Even to ask these questions risks treading on sacred precepts, but Silence is not afraid to go there. In fact, if it did not, Scorsese’s film would fall short of the masterpiece that it is.
Silence is made by filmmakers who know precisely what they’re doing, artists in fluent and complete command of their art. When Scorsese took on Gangs of New York as his first grand epic 14 years ago, he was perhaps less assured, less adept at handling all the elements he needed to bring it off the way he wanted. As brilliant as it is in parts, it can feel choppy, disorderly, and uneven. Not so with Silence. This is the work of a master in total control of his awesome power to bring his visions to life onscreen. There is no one like him. He has no equal.
The western actors: Garfield, Driver and Neeson are solidly confident. All but stealing the show, however, is Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue, who emerges when the film ascends to spectacular heights in its second half. Neeson and Ogata, as Father Ferreira and the stern official who will decide his fate, embody the film’s opposing points of view — eloquently explaining the reasons why the Catholic word was being spread and and why its arrival was not welcome in feudal Japan. For all the priest’s lucid pleas, the inquisitor stands firm in formidable resistance, expounding with stony severity how European ideology is inherently incompatible with cultural identity in the East, and why Japan was prepared to go to any extreme to keep it out. Every second Ogata is on screen, he’s mesmerizing.
Silence, though, will be a challenge for some, unless they go in knowing what to expect and ready to accept it. Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, or Raging Bull, Silence does not start off with a gripping bang, and those who need that kind of thrill may not find those moments. Silence doesn’t rely on the punch of climaxes; its power resides in its cumulative force. In that way, it’s unlike any film Scorsese has ever made. It is a stand-alone rarity. By the time his entire canon is judged, Silence will stand as one of his greatest achievements: a quiet rumination, a slow and steady meditation on the dual impulses that have driven him throughout his career — religious symbolism and Catholic guilt vs. stylish flair and celebrating the sinner. It is an interesting thing to compare The Wolf of Wall Street to Silence. You would be hard-pressed to find such a stark dichotomy in any director’s career. These two movies illustrate best the darkness and light that dwell inside Scorsese as the twin engines of his creative spirit.
If you really want to know what a great filmmaker Martin Scorsese is, watch Silence. It won’t be an easy sit, particularly the first hour. Great artists forever wrestle with the fury of the moment. The storms combust and churn within them until they find a way out. This is true of Scorsese with a lot of his work, but it is especially true with this film. Silence is a cascade of images that tremble like the leaves of trees and shimmer like the restless sea. It is a dialogue about faith that sprawls with immaculate discipline over two-and-a-half hours. It is a rumination on the thrust and parry of life — and the impetus that pushes us through it. What we sacrifice, sell, and entrust on the road that will lead us to enlightenment or damnation.
Scorsese had to make Silence. He’s had to make every movie he’s ever made, but he especially had to make this one. He had to make it because it probably says more about him than any film he’s ever made. In the end, Scorsese is the sum of all of his many spectacular parts — a professor and historian of film history, a believer in the redemptive strength of cinema, a man torn between religious devotion and reckless abandonment of rules. Most of the time I hardly see the plight of the white American male as an important tale to repeatedly spin. If the end result never amounts to more than finding ways to be happy, why is that a story worth telling? Silence shows the gravity that weighs down on humanity whenever seek the path to happiness or the path to suffering. It can often come down to the simplest choices with the gravest consequences, depending on what you are willing to give up.
In an era where much of Hollywood cinema is designed to pull audiences in by dazzling us with proven formulas of preawareness, comfy branding, and computer-generated visual extravaganzas, Scorsese’s Silence is a reminder of the once great institution of the American film epic. Films that are so big they swallow us up and plunge us into a world of penetrating ideas. Where brilliant cinematography reminds us that the pristine realism of the natural world is every bit as breathtaking as watching artificial worlds unreel from the imaginations of visual effects artists. Here, Scorsese’s own visions are the visual effects. His mind’s eye, his perceptions. It’s the story he has dreamed of telling us for decades — one that demands to be seen on a big screen, in pitch black darkness, in a theater full of souls staring up in stunned silence.