Critics have compared Silence, Martin Scorsese’s latest drama, to his spiritually inclined The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). But another way of approaching Silence is in relation to Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). A cartoonish black comedy about real-life Wall Street swindler Jordan Belfort, Wolf amplified Scorsese’s filmmaking to the point of self-parody, especially with regard to the movie’s subjects: foulmouthed, macho lowlifes who tease each other, do drugs, treat women like garbage, and commit wanton acts of violence (in this case, financial). In many respects Silence is the complete opposite—a largely meditative historical epic about Portuguese Jesuit priests whose faith is tested as they try to spread Catholicism in 17th-century feudal Japan. But Silence, despite its formal deviations, is very similar to Scorsese’s other works.
Scorsese is famous for techniques that provide the viewer with a kinetic rush: flashy editing tricks (freeze-frames, montage, frantic zooms, elaborate Steadicam shots), high-contrast lighting, and scores consisting largely of popular music. Silence is far more restrained, with long takes, wide landscape shots, a semblance of natural lighting, and almost no music (ambient, presumably electronic tones intrude occasionally, courtesy of husband-and-wife duo Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge). But the calm, stark, contemplative aesthetic of Silence is just as aggressive as the mania of his other dramas. If anything, the pace and appearance of Silence intensify its subjects and themes as much as the frenetic, kaleidoscopic style of Goodfellas (1990) conveys the seedy, quick thrills of being a gangster.
Based on Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel, Silence follows Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they journey from Macao, China, to Nagasaki, Japan, to track down their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The year is 1640, shortly after the Shimabara Rebellion, in which Catholic peasants revolted against the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan’s last feudal military government. Ferreira’s last correspondence arrived seven years earlier—relayed in an arresting flashback sequence with Neeson’s voice-over narration, the letter divulges the priest’s crisis of faith. He watched as fellow Jesuits who refused to apostatize were scalded with water ladled on them from hot springs. Ferreira is rumored to have denounced the church and assimilated into Japanese society, but Rodrigues refuses to believe that his teacher has betrayed the faith. The two young Jesuits are the final Portuguese priests to be sent to Japan, charged with bringing Ferreira back to Macao.
Rodrigues and Garrpe recruit as their guide Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a lapsed Japanese Catholic whom they find inebriated and despondent at a Macao port bar—his renewal of faith becomes Rodrigues’s chief duty and greatest burden. Kichijiro reveals that he renounced the church even when the rest of his family refused to do so, and watched as they were executed. He takes confession, and Rodrigues absolves him of his sins, yet at each opportunity to declare his faith—whether to save others from execution or to protect Rodrigues from being discovered and persecuted by the shogunate—Kichijiro is too fearful and weak to sacrifice himself. In the film’s sole running joke, Kichijiro begs Rodrigues to hear his confession after every betrayal.
As in many Scorsese films, the protagonist turns out to be the most doubtful and dishonest character. Eventually Rodrigues is captured by the Japanese and confronted with the most difficult challenge to his priesthood: either to step publicly on an image of Christ or to watch as others are tortured and killed. Rodrigues is committed to his beliefs, but even early on, his resolve feels sanctimonious and self-serving. In voice-over monologue he betrays his skepticism of salvation and divine intervention, asking, with a trace of bitterness, “God heard their prayers, but did he hear their screams?” The “silence” of the title isn’t just the absence of God in the face of human suffering but also the failure of men to sacrifice themselves when doing so could alleviate others’ misery. Whether or not Rodrigues capitulates to the shogunate, one already questions whether his refusal to denounce God is an act of faith or of narcissism.
These are bold propositions for a film about spirituality, but they’re hardly alien to Scorsese’s work. As early as Mean Streets (1973) he was grappling with the question of guilt. In that movie, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) tries to reconcile his faith with his small-stakes criminal enterprises; he acts out his phony saintliness by reflexively protecting Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a fellow hoodlum who embraces his violent nature. Their relationship parallels Rodrigues’s flawed attempts to redeem Kichijiro in Silence, but there are echoes of other Scorsese films too, and not just The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun. The skewed prophet trying to thrust salvation onto others is a central component of Taxi Driver (1976). Notions of betrayal dominate Goodfellas and The Departed (2006), in which an altar boy grows up to become an undercover cop infiltrating the Irish Mafia.
A significant way in which Silence deviates from Scorsese’s past treatments of religion is in implicitly acknowledging that other faiths might provide greater spiritual fulfillment. Inoue (Issei Ogata), the shogunate’s lead inquisitor, explains to Rodrigues that Japan is like a swamp—Christianity cannot grow there, and if it could, it would destroy the culture’s traditions. As Silence progresses, Rodrigues encounters Buddhist ideas about man’s relationship to nature, particularly that the nature of human beings is immutable. So is the refusal to reject Christ an affirmation of mankind? Or, as Ferreira instructs Rodrigues, is rejecting Christ in order to save the lives of other people “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed”?
These are difficult questions, and to Scorsese’s credit, none of them is neatly resolved. The film can be ponderous in its rumination and ambiguity, but few cinematic treatments of Christianity and sanctity have been as generous or as intellectually challenging as Silence. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese playfully and indirectly examines one aspect of his career: the stylistic and thematic trademarks of “a Martin Scorsese picture.” In Silence he dissects another of his preoccupations: the challenge of being a devout, virtuous person. “The hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt,” Rodrigues says at one point. That sounds like something a character in Casino might say before blowing someone’s brains out. v