When the theological ambiguity disappears, so does the film’s appealby Sameer Rahim / January 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
Few Hollywood films have the courage to tackle a religious crisis. Even a director as eminent as Martin Scorsese has taken years—28 to be precise—to get the funding to adapt Shusaku Endo’s superb 1966 novel Silence. The story of Christian missionaries being persecuted in 17th-century Japan was evidently thought to have little popular appeal, at least in comparison to the hedonism-fuelled Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese’s previous film. Perhaps the producers were right to be wary. Silence has had mixed reviews and been snubbed by the Oscars. In the screening I was in, about 20 people slipped out after an hour, perhaps when it became clear that at no point would either of its leads be sniffing cocaine off a prostitute.
That’s a shame because Silence is one of the most thought-provoking films about religion I have seen in recent years. It grapples with belief, conscience, conversion, colonialism and what it feels like to be abandoned by God. In the era of renewed religious persecutions—Christians, Yazidis and Shia by Islamic State in Iraq, and Muslims by extremist Buddhists in Burma—it is also grimly relevant.
Unfortunately, though, two points towards the end spoil Silence, turning it into a straightforwardly religious film, rather than a film about religion.
Scorsese likes the pattern of sin then absolution. Think of the punishment meted out to Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990). Once he thrived among the gargoyle gangsters of New York, but ends up stuck in the witness protection programme in some godforsaken part of America. What could be a worse purgatory for a mafia-man than to order spaghetti with marinara sauce and get noodles with ketchup? Another favoured pattern is absolution and then sin. At the end of Taxi Driver, in order to save a child prostitute, the mohican-haired Robert DeNiro starts a cleansing bloodbath in a brothel; but by the end, he is back driving his yellow cab, and the film could almost be starting again.
So it is with Scorsese’s order of films. After The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), his controversial film about Jesus, he made Goodfellas; and after Wolf of Wall Street comes Silence—seriously lacking in a thumping soundtrack and jokes of the “Do I amuse you?” variety.
Silence is about the silence of God. Endo, a Japanese Christian, wrote the novel to explore his dual identity. Two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), go in search of Father Ferreira, who is rumoured to have apostatised and become a Buddhist. Joining them is the English-speaking Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), full of self-loathing since he saw his family tortured to death by the Inquisition. He survived by giving up his Christian faith.
The priests are welcomed by a group of secret Christians for whom they perform baptisms and hear confession. But soon their presence brings trouble. Betrayed by Kichijiro, they are rounded up by the Inquisitor Inoue who kills Christians who don’t apostatise. The priests are separated and we follow Rodrigues as he is interrogated. Inoue, who the novel makes clear was once Christian, asks why imperialist Europeans want the Japanese to convert when they have a perfectly good religion already. Buddhism suits the Japanese temperament, he says, like a tree that can grow only in one soil. It’s a reasonable point, which Rodrigues struggles to refute. (One of the film’s strengths is putting good arguments in bad characters’ mouths and vice-versa.) The Japanese Christians, he says, don’t even understand the faith: due to a mistranslation, they confuse the “son” of God with the “sun” in the sky.
From seeing the priests as heroes we are asked to doubt their motives. What good are they doing for their flock? Wouldn’t they be doing more good by allowing the Christians to apostatise? That’s Rodrigues’s instinct as sees his friend Garupe helpless on a beach as his congregants are drowned. Garupe’s solution is to run into the water and rescue his flock; he dies and floats to the surface with his arms outstretched, Jesus-like, a true martyr. Rodrigues is punished more subtly; the Japanese have spotted weakness in his faith—or perhaps it is compassion?—that makes them feel he will convert.
Rodrigues’s conundrum has wider relevance beyond this particular time and this particular religion. He could be anyone forced to choose between living up to their principles and compromising. Should you value the present world or remain an example for those to come? The same conflict was faced by dissident artists in the Soviet Union or free-thinkers like Galileo persecuted by the Catholic Church. Rodrigues prays for a solution but hears nothing: in the novel’s words, “the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
At this point in the film, I was enraptured. But then two moments wreck—perhaps irrevocably—the subtle arguments that have powered the film. After meeting Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson, channelling his role as a sage in Star Wars), Rodrigues is told that to save his flock from “the pit,” he must trample an icon of Jesus. This simple action, the Japanese tell him, doesn’t mean anything: it’s only an image. (Faint echoes here of liberals telling Muslims to lighten up about pictures mocking the Prophet Muhammad?) But for Rodrigues it is not simply an image: it is a sacred representation of all that is good in the world.
But does God want him to save the people or save his conscience? At this moment of highest tension, the image speaks: Jesus tells him to trample. And at a stroke all the dramatic tension and theological ambiguity disappears. Once God says it’s fine, where’s the challenge? Once the silence is broken, Silence is broken.
In an interview with Philip Horne in Sight and Sound, Scorsese tries to hedge things slightly: “however you want to interpret that voice, it’s up to you, but he hears that voice. That’s real. And Jesus tells him to do it.” But if he wanted to imply the voice was in Rodrigues’s head, he could have used Andrew Garfield’s voice.
There is another misstep in the final scene. Rodrigues, having lived for years as an apostate, dies peacefully with a wife and children. Did he retain his faith or abandon it, as Ferreira seems to have done? He has heard Kichijiro’s last confession, but that might have been sentimental loyalty to his old betrayer, failed Judas to his failed Jesus. In the last shot, though, Scorsese zooms into the cremation basket closing in on a hidden crucifix in his hand. This detail (which the novel does not include) has a kitschy feel, coarsening the theological sophistication of what has gone before. Compare Terrence Malick’s final shot of the Mont Saint-Michel in To the Wonder, his film based on Song of Solomon. That is perfectly mysterious while Scorsese is bluntly obvious.
Scorsese has never been a subtle filmmaker. The Last Temptation has some wonderful moment matched with head-in-hand crassness. I’m thinking of the camera zooming in on Willem Dafoe’s Jesus after he has turned the water into wine, smiling and toasting the crowd like a Henry Hill at a New York bar.
Scorsese’s most sophisticated religious reflection remains his first feature film Mean Streets (1973). Harvey Keitel plays a Catholic looking for redemption on the streets, not in the church. He wants to get his friend DeNiro, a holy fool straight out of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, on the straight and narrow. The theology is the background hum to a very human story. When Keitel sees DeNiro shot by a hitman (played by Scorsese), and stumbles out injured, the power of the scene is that Keitel has no idea whether DeNiro has been redeemed or damned—and neither does the audience.
The BFI’s Scorsese Season runs until February