Martin Scorsese’s Silence may well turn out to be the defining passion project of his long and storied career. In gestation for the last twenty-five years, this adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the seventeenth-century feels like a reckoning for Scorsese, a meditation on the religious beliefs that have percolated through his work ever since Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Sometimes that kind of long-term project can breed over-complexity and an overdetermined sense of significance, but Scorsese seems to have used the last twenty-five years to refine his vision until it is as clear and calm as Endo’s own pellucid prose style. As it stands, then, the narrative is remarkably simple – a pair of Portugese Jesuit priests, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), travel to seventeenth-century Japan to find out what happened to their missing mentor, Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson) and to help the Japanese continue to struggle against the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Tokugawa Shogunate that occurred in the wake of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1638.
For all that sense of refinement and purpose, however, I had really mixed feelings about Silence, so it’s probably good to articulate some of my reservations straight out of the gate. First and foremost, it has to be said that, despite the fact that this is an adaptation of a Japanese novel, there is a really unpleasant Orientalism on display here that often makes Silence feel like a bit of a complement to Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall – a more nuanced and tactful companion piece to be sure, but a companion piece nonetheless. Dedicated to all Japanese Christians, the film pretty much suggests that there were only two major categories of Japanese people at the time the missionaries arrived: eager converts and autocratic tyrants. For all that Scorsese goes some way to challenging the missionary imperative, there’s never any real sense of a Japanese populace that might have remained indifferent to it, let alone resisted it. To make matters worse, there’s something vaguely ridiculous about Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver in these two roles – they’re good actors, but they don’t really match the gravitas of the material – that makes you aware of just how much the film is striving for pathos, an awareness that in itself lends a slightly absurd bathos to some of the sequences.
Those reservations, aside, however, there can be no doubt that Silence is beautiful to look at. From the opening shots, Scorsese depicts Japan with a stark, biblical simplicity that makes it feel as if the Holy Land is never far away, as the missionaries set out to recapitulate the lives of the earliest Christians in a colonial context, holding covert meetings at safe houses and spreading the faith by word-of-mouth. Most the scenes are suffused with a photographic stillness that favours voids and blank spaces, as if to capture a world as yet untouched by Christian images or by a Christian visual lens, even as Rodrigues and Garupe find themselves retracing Francis of Assisi’s original mission, and living amongst nature much as he must have done in the sixteenth century. Yet this is also a world in which Christian images have been forbidden, and in which the sign of true apostasy is stepping on an image of Christ. With Christian images both prohibited and newly emergent, the few depictions of Christ quickly take on an intensely iconographic quality, a deeply Catholic reverence and rapture in the face of religious imagery that radiates out and erodes the finer details of Scorsese’s mise-en-scenes into a luminous, numinous ether. Of course, that works quite naturally alongside the ideogrammatic asceticism of Japanese culture as well, foreshadowing the syncretism of Japanese and Christian traditions (and the emergence of a genuinely Japanese Christianity) that preoccupies the third act of the film. At times, it is almost as if Scorsese has discovered a Christian form of calligraphy, painting his action in the broad strokes of a master director who is utterly at home in his craft, with several sequences seeming designed to recall the cursory grandeur of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.
Despite the fact the film is set in the seventeenth century, then, Japan often feels like a cipher for the century immediately succeeding the death of Christ, just as the fusion of Christian mysticism and Japanese asceticism often feels like an aesthetic strategy for evoking the atmosphere and experience of the early Church. Far from the Catholic histrionics of Scorsese’s crime films, this is a Catholic director searching for the kernel of Christianity in a pre-Catholic context, as if to return to that foundational moment before the establishment of the Church in Rome, with the two padres requently presented as Peter-like figures in relation to Francis’ iteration of Christ. Not surprisingly, then, this is probably Scorsese’s slowest and most meditative film, a pointed contrast to the kinetic frenzy of The Wolf of Wall Street. While the stillbience is periodically broken by brutal scenes of interrogation, even these are highly meditative (they often involve crucifixion), while the sequences in which Christians are asked to defile and desecrate religious icons tend to be far more harrowing and traumatic than any of the depictions of torture and execution.
As in Endo’s novel, that milieu is given shape by Rodrigues’ journey towards Ferrera, who stands as a horizon of doubt and uncertainty, given that he has reputedly apostasised and embraced Japanese religion. Moving closer and closer to Ferrera, Rodrigues finds it more and more difficult to remain calm in the face of the apparent silence of God, especially because the Japanese who are being killed on his behalf remain so stoic and ascetic (for the most part) in the face of persecution. By this stage, the Shogunate had realised that murdering Christian missionaries simply turned them into martyrs, and so instead targeted their Japanese followers until the missions recanted, creating an unbearable choice for the missionaries between saving lives and renouncing Christ. As that dissonance intensifies (“I thought that martyrdom would be my salvation…please do not let it be my shame”) the voiceover that drives the film turns from an extended prayer into a monologue ruminating on the meaning of doubt, until the silence between voiceovers feels even more expressive and poignant than the voiceovers themselves, and every diegetic silence also speaks to the same profound sense of dissonance and despair. In fact, the effect of this evacuated voiceover is to fuse diegetic and non-diegetic silence generally, until every moment of quietness, however brief or interrupted, comes to feel continuous with some more momentous stillness whose omniscient inscrutability is converged with the calm, impassive presence of the camera itself.
In other words, Rodrigues’ journey reveals something inherently impersonal about faith and mission, deanthropomorphising God to recapture something of the radical alterity of Christianity itself. In the process, silence comes to feel less like the absence of God than the culmination of God’s radical otherness, as doubt and faith converge into a new kind of religious experience that defies strictly human categories. In a paradoxical way, the very agony of doubt becomes the truest expression of faith and the pinnacle of living in a Christ-like manner, which is perhaps why the agony in the garden of Gethsemane increasingly feels like the lynchpin of the New Testament, and the entire Christian tradition. As the film proceeds, Rodrigues doesn’t exactly develop or deepen so much as adopt the painterly postures and stances that have traditionally been used to represent Gethsemane. Imitating Christ more and more, but at the moment of Christ’s own greatest misgivings, Rodrigues rediscovers his faith as a crisis of meaning, a more dynamic and agitating entity than he could have possibly imagined when embarking for Japan.
Yet the final moment of revelation comes when Rodrigues finally meets Ferrera, who has renounced Christian mission (if not Christian faith) after coming to believe in a fundamental incommensurability between Christian and Japanese traditions. At first, this spectacle of Ferrera having assimilated to Japanese ideals is even worse for Rodrigues than seeing the Japanese tortured, not least because Ferrera hasn’t relinquished Christianity but has adopted a more syncretic approach. Worse, still, is Ferrera’s observation that the Japanese Christians were never even total Christians to begin with, but had inevitably filtered their new religious beliefs through their older pagan traditions and cultures, too pervasive to be ever completely removed. But the final insult is that Ferrera undercuts Rodrigues’ pretensions to a Gethsemane-like agony as well, leading to the final paradox of the film – namely that “if Christ were here, he would have apostasised” rather than allow more Japanese Christians to be tortured and persecuted. In other words, desecrating Christ turns out to the best way to imitate Christ, and following in Christ’s footsteps means publically renouncing the Christian tradition. In that gesture, “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,” Scorsese achieves a theodical profundity that almost rivals The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Flowers of St. Francis and Diary of a Country Priest in its existential yearnings and incommensurabilities.
Termed “the Apostate Paul” upon finally desecrating the image of Christ, Rodrigues is finally freed from persecution, leading to an abbreviated third act depicting the remainder of his life in Japan. During these final years, he appears to have assimilated to Japanese culture and customs, never talking about Christianity, never praying (even on his deathbed) and never having recourse to Christian images or icons. Yet the effect is not of a renounced Christianity so much as a radically reconfigured Christianity in which the individual’s relationship with God surpasses any claim to tradition or administrative procedure. Part of me is tempted to call that a conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, but the individual apprehension of God seems to go much deeper and more mystical than that, as Scorsese charts out a relationship with the divine that can only take place in and through silence. Insofar as it is still Catholic, it continues a Franciscan legacy, but in the last instance, it is a devotion to silence, which becomes a vehicle for faith, rather than an obstacle to it, just as Scorsese presents the extreme stillbience of the film (close to three hours) as an impediment to immersion that actually ends up constituting the meaning and magnificence of his vision, if only in retrospect. While he may have made various passion projects, then, this is a much more individual and personal exercise – almost an entirely private film, designed to meditate over and bear witness to his own intimate communion with the divine. In our last glimpse of a crucifix cradled in Rodrigues’ hand, it is almost as if we are witnessing Scorsese’s own hands on the camera, cradling the film into a personal, devotional gesture of his own, a cinematic rosary, the significance of whose beads presumably lies more in their manipulation and arrangement than in their final exhibition and distribution.
Given that intensely personal, meditative quality – and Scorsese’s own gravitas as director – it might seem a bit misanthropic to end with more reservations. Yet part of what makes the film so compelling are its inconsistencies, with intense sensitivities in certain areas offset by almost unbelievable gestures of oblivion in other areas. For all that Scorsese liberally quotes Japanese cinema, then, I was especially put off by Issey Ogata’s depiction of Inoue Masahige, the main inquisitor and antagonist. Whether because Scorsese was trying to recreate an historically authentic accent, or because Masahige was notorious for his homosexual love affairs – or both – I found this performance ludicrously caricatured, the culmination of a film that seemed to have very little interest in anything resembling a Japanese perspective or voice. Of course, caricature is not out of place, in some ways, in recreating a historical situation in which there was such a sense of incommensurability on both sides, but I didn’t think Scorsese really pulled it off, with some of the more absurd sequences having a bit of a sub-Herzog vibe to them.
More generally, and for all that I loved the film, I found myself wondering whether we really need a film in 2017 about Christians being persecuted when the far-right Christian agenda is so often an agent of persecution. Granted, Silence is more complex than that, and more aligned with Scorsese’s own evolution as a director than seeking to make a commentary on the contemporary world in the manner of The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine this appealing to American Christians anxious to construe themselves as outlaws, or as a persecuted minority, which left a bit of an unpleasant taste in my mouth as well. Transcendent at moments, oblivious at others, Silence appears to be very timely for Scorsese but perhaps not that timely for American cinema audiences in general, which is perhaps why it has been largely overlooked for awards season. Yet part of me was also relived by the retreat from the “social commentary” of The Wolf of Wall Street as well, which I found a bit overdone and exhausting by the end of that film. With Silence, Scorsese has retreated into his deepest cinematic self, and while that might make for a quite hermetic film, it also lends it an authenticity and intensity that, for me, makes it one of his most memorable efforts this century, even or especially because of how it forces you to question the seamless classicism of his late style.