starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Liam Neeson
screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo
directed by Martin Scorsese
by Walter Chaw Martin Scorsese's Silence is Martin Scorsese's Silence. Not Shusaku Endo's Silence. Not Masahiro Shinoda's Chinmoku. Rather than a Japanese perspective, it's told from the perspective of our most notoriously Catholic filmmaker (next to Mel Gibson, but he went to a different church), who, at the end of his life, has found this cap to a trilogy about faith and doubt begun in The Last Temptation of Christ (an adaptation of a novel by Greek author) and Kundun (about the life of the Dalai Lama)--films, each, that explore mystery and land somewhere personal and inherently unknowable, as faith is and should be. It's an essentially Romanticist text, not Humanist like Endo's or doom-laden and progressive like Shinoda's. It's the closest Scorsese's come to truly contemplative since Kundun, and it shares with that film a sense of wonder at the Natural: this Romanticist conceit that the first testament of God is, as it always has been, Nature. Silence is almost a Terrence Malick film in that sense. In every other, it's Scorsese coming to terms with the idea that grace is made manifest only through the actions of its proponents. The title refers not just to the Christian God's notable state when confronted with the unimaginable suffering of His children, but also to Scorsese's own idea of what God wants from His followers. It's not thoughts and prayers in the face of tragedy. Maybe it's humility. Maybe it's service. Or maybe it's just silence..
There are a handful of powerhouse moments in Silence worth discussing because they're not the ones you expect. There's an interrogation of our padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) by Japanese inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) that is taken from the book but made funnier. "What's the word?" Inoue asks his translator (Tadanobu Asano), searching for the proper description of a woman--Christianity in his analogy--who is incapable of bearing a child. ("Barren.") It's telling that Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks choose to focus in on this definition; I take it as the suggestion that true faith is seeded by action, not demagoguery or missionary conviction. Elsewhere, fallen priest Ferreira (Liam Neeson) tells Rodrigues that people are suffering and dying "without pride"--unlike Rodrigues and his fellow padres, who proudly talk about the soil of the Church watered by the blood of martyrs and imagine their torment as akin to Christ's. Scorsese makes this incredible arrogance explicit in Rodrigues imagining his own face as Christ's in the reflection of a freshwater eddy. It's an eloquent visual summation of pages of Endo's prose expressing the same. The image Rodrigues conjures comes from a painting (El Greco's "St. Veronica Holding the Veil," c.1580--thanks to Steven Greydanus for identifying it for me) remembered from childhood, which raises interesting questions about primacy of belief, and how our ideas of eroticism and self arise from our first exposure to representational objects. Is there an intersection between faith and Eros? It's not a meaningless skylark to note that "ecstasy" has its origins in a religious state of standing literally outside the self. Sex and God are immutable constants. Silence touches on this in this elegant, brief gesture portraying Rodrigues as a narcissist, implying that all who would be evangelical in this pursuit are narcissists. After all, this moment is a literal visualisation of the Narcissus story.
There's mention in Silence of how Christians were once welcomed in Japan. Of how they numbered into the 300,000s before the purging began. (Incidentally, it's 400,000 in the book.) But this isn't a history, it's a vital document of our current state. What is it that we're demanding of our own Muslim population in the United States but registration and apostasy? When a young Japanese woman asks if it's true that Paradise will be a place where there's no more brutal work, torture, certain death, Rodrigues assures that it's so. And so Scorsese talks about what the Church has always promised for the underprivileged, poor, uneducated classes, and in the process this film about 17th-century Portuguese missionaries becomes relevant in the United States. Vote against your economic and physical self-interest, say the men in the ice cream suits, and earn your eternal reward. The hallmark of Silence is a single line of dialogue that has no corollary in either of the screenplay's sources: "Mountains and rivers can be moved. But Man's nature cannot be moved." Nature is immutable, God's word made manifest. It's brutal, and insensate, and we are the product of it. You can question it, but to what end? It is. And it's not answering. Scorsese's theology recognizes both man's innate brutality and his instinct to contextualize it, to ritualize it. He shows a Mass and we're reminded that Catholicism is a blood cult engaged in ritual cannibalism. That its proponents engage in it simultaneously as a literal transmutation and with an awareness that it's just a cracker speaks to a very particular kind of perceptual tension. It's the flesh of Christ and yet, not, and it's only madness if no one else agrees with you. Enough people agree with you and madness is truth. There's a throughline connecting Silence to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, in which a pilgrim in a strange land looks to purify it, finds himself corrupted by it, indulges in his nature, and is exalted for it. It's another way the picture is about America.
The quote about Nature happens in the first exchange between Ferreira, who has been living in Japan with a Japanese wife for years when Rodrigues comes to look for him. In Endo's book, there's only oblique mention of nature, but here, "nature" is how the Japanese can see no God separate from it: "The Japanese cannot think of an existence beyond the realm of nature." In the Endo text, the Japanese can't separate God from Man. This matters, because it distinguishes Endo's divinity from Scorsese's. Should you miss the point, Ferreira, Scorsese's stand-in, continues: "We find our original nature in Japan, Rodrigues. Perhaps it's what's meant by finding God." The element of the divine in Man is Nature. Nature is bestial, savage. Scorsese suggests that his priests, under extreme duress, find the testament of the Natural. Apostasy in this context, then, becomes very much like an idea of Christian grace. "Christ would apostatize," says Ferreira, to save men from their suffering. Indeed, there's the tantalizing intimation in scripture that he does, during the agony of separation in the three days between crucifixion and resurrection.
I have always found the Christian story to be compelling--all the more so for the widespread failure of its devotees to honour its beautiful, laden philosophical complexities. Silence is a lifetime spent questioning. It's a filmmaker's testament, obsessed with images, relics, rituals the way that filmmakers are, or can be. Consider all the references it makes to the distribution of relics, to scattering bones so they can't be converted into relics; post-apostasy, the padres are given the job of poring through imported goods for Christian contraband. Images are central to the picture. Images are central to Catholicism. They bind one fugitive believer to another. It's poignant that Scorsese uses the El Greco painting (a representation of an apocryphal "shroud of Turin" story), in that it becomes a representation of a painting of a representation--Derrida's doors of perception interpreted as cinema. The multifold signifiers include Scorsese, a Catholic filmmaker who has referred to film as sacrament, interpreting Rodrigues's faith as something based on representational layers. The truth is buried in there somewhere, like our lizard brains are beneath miles of grey matter arranged into a labyrinth. Silence is the thread Scorsese provides. The final shot is another thing unique to the film in implying that Rodrigues believed in a Christian god to the bitter end. Some have taken this to be Scorsese the Catholic proselytizing against the heathen Nipponese, though I see it as Scorsese accepting that the world is strange, cold, and hard, and that the beliefs of Man are personal vessels meant to carry the soul from the inspiration of birth to the fire of death. It's a recognition of our natures to believe; and that belief without action is death. Scorsese at the end of this cycle recognizes that truth is beauty and beauty truth. It's all you need know and, more, it's all you can ever know. Like the resolution of Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon", there is no answer in inward faith: there's only the outward expression of grace. Silence is a masterpiece.