Martin Scorsese once said, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” While most rightfully point toward the renowned writer/director’s mafia films as being the most iconic in his oeuvre, Scorsese’s also been an artist wholly preoccupied with cinematically representing his life-long struggle with matters of divine devotion. The most overt example of this fascination is The Last Temptation of Christ, his controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel that strives to explicitly express Jesus Christ’s humanity. Blasphemous by Christian standards, it depicts the Son of God (played with sinewy intensity by Willem Dafoe) as a graceless mortal, suffering physically and spiritually due to his existence, just as the rest of us do. Kazantzakis’ Jesus dreamt of marrying and bedding Mary Magdalene, raising a family, and rejecting his duties as His child. This fantasy renders the final words of Christ all the more touching. “It is accomplished,” he cries, realizing his sacred necessity before letting out a last gasp of oxygen. Scorsese’s picture exemplifies the definitive battle between flesh and faith, acting (by the director’s own admission) as “a prayer; an act of worship”.
Throughout the course of Scorsese’s career, many of his characters have embodied and shouldered the burden of their creator’s tenuous beliefs. Looking back on his breakout feature, Mean Streets, we see its lead, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), grapple with forceful moral dilemmas. Once you take into account the director’s desire to become a priest before he tossed his hat into the filmmaking arena, Charlie becomes an avatar for the artist as much as he is a replication of the Little Italy toughs Scorsese grew up admiring (but could never join, thanks to protective parents and asthmatic lungs). He’s a man caught between two loyalties – one to the Lord above, and the other to the streets, where sins are washed clean through action. It’s not hard to substitute “cinema” for “crime” in order to recognize intent, and the shame Scorsese endures for turning his back on the church is felt time and again via his choice of projects (not to mention collaborators like Last Temptation screenwriter Paul Schrader, who fled a Calvinist upbringing before textually grappling with his own desire for redemption). Though his vastly undervalued Kundun deals with Buddhism instead of Catholicism, it still speaks to Scorsese’s journey toward inner peace. Ditto Living in the Material World, his documentary that chronicles the transcendent yearnings of ex-Beatle George Harrison. All of these pictures are quiet meditations; knees taken on a battlefield where the likes of Billy Batts and Nicky Santoro get their brains beaten in.
Now comes Silence, Scorsese’s adaptation of Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel revolving around two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan in search of a captured former mentor (Liam Neeson). Strangers in a strange land, the clergymen witness firsthand the horrors of practicing Christianity in a country that’s labeled it an outlawed form of rebellion. Both are given a choice between torture or exile, a suffering for their faith they did not expect to endure. In a recent New York Times profile, Scorsese revealed that he believed the wait for the film – now thirty-years-in-the-making – was “all in God’s time”, and (should a person buy stock in that sort of thing) he couldn’t be more correct. Silence is not only one of the most technically accomplished movies in an already extraordinary body of work (from a director who could potentially be labeled the greatest in American history), but also the conclusion of his onscreen religious journey. God forbid, if Silence were to be Scorsese’s last picture, it’d be a grand capper to a career that’s tried to make sense of both the secular and spiritual trials that trouble the souls of men, crippling them with the weightiest encumbrance of all: guilt, Catholic or otherwise.
The set up is derivative of the thrilling pieces of pulp Scorsese went gaga over as he came of age – a devout play on The Searchers, if you will. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson) is the rogue, having committed apostasy by trampling the Lord’s image. So it’s up to Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Driver) to cross miles of ocean in order to investigate this supposed sacrilege, and Ferreira’s subsequent assimilation into the Buddhist culture (rumors even go as far as to say he’s taken a Japanese wife). What they don’t know is that Ferreira was forced to blaspheme in exchange for the torture and murder of his fellow Christians to cease. After a short time exploring the island, Rodrigues is captured, jailed, and put through a similar trial. When he isn’t being physically tested, those who keep his faith are. But all it takes is one minor instance of desecration for their anguish to end.
The moral interrogations that bubble beneath the surface of Scorsese’s other motion pictures become the driving narrative force of Silence. How much pain can one man endure until he ultimately breaks and forsakes all that is dear to him? If this fracture in his psyche does occur, does that mean God failed him, or did he fail God? More specifically, can Rodrigues allow himself to end this torture, leaning on hope that the Lord will forgive him for his well-meaning transgression? It’s again the affliction of never knowing the right thing to do in God’s eyes, and the crushing guilt that goes along with potentially getting it wrong. However, as much as Scorsese is posing these questions to the audience, placing them squarely in the sandals of these messengers, he’s poking and prodding his own faith. Would Martin Scorsese know the answers any more than the Jesuits or Japanese would? Silence never offers up a concrete response, becoming a discordant hymn, hummed while the tribulations of survival are imposed upon those who would undoubtedly warble along to the tune.
Perhaps this self-questioning is the primary reason for long stretches of silence in Silence. As hacky as that last sentence may read, there’s no denying that this is the quietest, most restrained work the master filmmaker has ever crafted. Even the razzle dazzle of Scorsese’s superlative period piece, The Age of Innocence, is absent; replaced with a contemplative distance in which the camera is a mere observer of the events, allowing all who can stomach these outrages to draw conclusions as to the extent of their spiritual ramifications. The movie opens and closes with the noises of nature, as if the director is gifting us minutes to prepare and then decompress before and after the trials we bear witness to. Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge’s score is often placed on the lowest end of the sonic spectrum, never overtaking any of the scenes, a near Lynchian rumble beneath the painful proceedings. Aside from a stunning crane shot (or three) and the occasional quick dolly, most moments are manufactured utilizing very simplistic camera setups, allowing horrific events to play out before reversing onto the reactions of both the faithful and their inquisitors. The same can be said of many extended dialogue scenes (provided by Scorsese and regular collaborator Jay Cocks’ script), where characters debate the consequences of religious imperialism and allowing the seeds of Christianity to be planted in a “swamp” where they may never be able to take root. Scorsese is aesthetically getting out of his own way, so that the movie’s substantial queries can be considered long after the credits roll.
To be completely honest, in the hands of a lesser Western filmmaker*, Silence could’ve been nothing more than a “white savior” atrocity exhibition that damns the Japanese and paints them as Buddhist brutes, claiming to be men of peace while they sear the flesh of Christians’ bodies with boiling water from hot springs. However, Scorsese does not seem interested in taking a side, as he paints The Church as an oblivious, overreaching organization with potentially irresponsible expectations, and the Japanese as a clan requiring sovereignty and self-government when it comes to religious freedom. While the brutality of the inquisitors is unflinchingly depicted, it is not presented sans the rationale of those who dole it out: rebellion against Buddhism will be tolerated up to a point, but can also be deemed irrational dissent that needs to be put down. None of the Japanese rulers are ever painted as cartoonish monsters, nor are the Jesuits inscrutable saints. Likewise, the villagers who yearn to practice the faith (and do so in secrecy within crudely organized sects) aren’t hapless miscreants, staring up at white faces for salvation. Instead, they’re a poor people searching for comfort in their daily lives that Buddhism hasn’t provided. The rituals of baptism and confession are an appealing alternative, promising an afterlife that justifies penniless groveling. Their interior tussle with the notion of a God who sees cruelty and allows it to transpire unpunished mirrors Rodrigues’ own doubts. Has He turned a blind eye and allowed their prayers to be lost to the Void? Or has He been there all along, shoulder to shoulder with these people, enduring their aching with them?
Conceivably this impenetrable veil of ambiguity is, in fact, the concrete answer Martin Scorsese’s Silence is offering up. The very nature of faith denies us the luxury of knowledge, and forces us to define our own moral compasses based on what we trust will please our respective deities. Though he’s an admitted “lapsed Catholic”, having chosen cinema over Christ, Scorsese’s still possessed by the imagery his time in church bestowed upon him. Even Travis Bickle held his arm over the flame in an attempt to purify himself as he embarked upon bringing a “real rain” to clean the streets of NYC in Taxi Driver. In this regard, Silence is the ultimate destination of Scorsese’s filmic voyage toward comprehending the belief system he denied, but has still haunted him into his twilight years. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s another act of celluloid worship that acknowledges its creator will never receive a response from the God it cries out to. Yet one imagines there cannot be another film like it, as the auteur has exhausted these inquiries by condensing them into one three-hour opus that refuses to ever look the audience in the eye and console them during these times of need. For Martin Scorsese, it is accomplished.
*Though those looking for an Eastern comparison point would be well served by Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 film Chinmoku (Silence), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or.