It would seem appropriate that the recent work of Martin Scorsese, arguably one of the most respected film historians living today and a director whose influence has been felt since the advent of America’s New Hollywood, not only continues to inspire young filmmakers and cinephiles alike but also veers inward, as if to make sense of his impact on the art form to which he is so ardently devoted. Some have even dubbed Scorsese the Patron Saint of Celluloid, a moniker that has dual meaning considering his undying love for cinema is matched only by his unyielding—if sometimes wavering—faith. Though the inclusion of spiritual overtones is a tradition as old as the movies themselves, Scorsese, who at one point in his life strongly considered joining the priesthood, remains one of the few directors working in the studio system whose filmography continues to evoke the cornerstones and quandaries of religion in all its forms.
The fascinating irony, however, is that he is also recognized for giving us some of cinema’s most memorable antiheroes, crime epics, and windows into the more unsavory aspects of American identity. That is not to say his mid-period work is devoid of spiritual underpinnings. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas come to mind as examples of non-overtly religious fare that still have a fixation on the cosmic nature of transgression and absolution. But this brings us back to the question of legacy, and more specifically how it relates to his latest effort, Silence, a film thirty years and several lawsuits in the making. It is a passion project in more ways than one, as both an exercise of persistence to adapt a beloved text (Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name) and an expression of a faith that he has grappled with throughout his life and his films. It would be easy for such a culmination to become an opportunity for Scorsese to use every last filmmaking flourish in his toolbox, but the revelation of Silence, and Scorsese, lies in the film’s restraint, which mirrors the central predicament of its main character. To what degree is God aware of our human suffering and strife? To what extent does he care?
Such fraught contemplation rests on the shoulders of Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit priest who at the beginning of Silence is eager to travel with his colleague Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) from their native Portugal to feudal Japan. The young priests’ mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, has gone missing while conducting missionary work in the remote country under perilous circumstances. The Japanese Shogunate has outlawed Christianity under pain of torture and death, and it is unclear whether Ferreira has been murdered in the name of his faith, or worse, renounced it under duress. In terms of premise, it is perhaps most convenient to thread together Silence with Scorsese’s more obvious spiritual films, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, which comprise a sort of religious triptych, but when the young Padres are sent on their quest, Silence proceeds in a way that most resembles one of Scorsese’s less celebrated pictures, Shutter Island. Both the missionaries and Leonardo DiCaprio’s private investigator, Teddy Daniels, are men with steadfast understandings of themselves and the world around them, and these beliefs are inevitably challenged upon entering foreign and mysterious places. Furthermore, Scorsese captures the voyage by sea to the Japanese islands with a rather ominous mood, not unlike when Daniels crosses the foggy Boston Harbor and sets foot in the eponymous asylum for the criminally insane.
Indeed, the transition from the stone structures of Portugal to the lush jungles of Japan is meant to be jarring. As Rodrigues and Garupe search for refuge in ramshackle seaside villages among the Kakure Kirishitan, or “Hidden Christians,” it becomes clear to them the importance of their work of spreading Christianity across the country, and as they conduct baptisms and communion for these newly acquainted members of their flock, we recognize the cultural and socioeconomic disparity between the two nations. Scorsese does not dismiss the fact that modern religion is intertwined, to a degree, with some form of globalization or colonialism, but his film is far from a critique of these historically European and western impulses. As much as its subject matter may entice you to take a stance for or against the priests’ calling and the institution they represent, Silence is the rare picture these days that is to be experienced, in the most fundamental form of the word, and then revisited with new perspectives and new attitudes.
On more than one occasion Japan is referred to as a “swamp,” a term used to describe the viability of the terrain as well as the unlikelihood of Christianity taking root. Rodrigues and Garupe come to understand this as they continue in pursuit of their lost teacher and remain out of sight of the Shogunate, who have offered handsome bounties to anyone with information of their whereabouts. This also stands as a turning point at which the narrative largely shifts to Rodrigues’ point-of-view, and his search for Ferreira becomes a search within himself, especially when Garupe and Rodrigues are eventually captured, separated, and tortured. The Japanese methods for eradicating Christianity are as cunning as they are horrifying. They understand that simply killing the priests and followers is analogous to cutting a weed. To truly pull out the roots, their faith must be discredited by coercing its messengers to reject it, which takes the form of stepping on the fumie, a bronze picture of Christ. The Kakure Kirishitan can avoid torture by apostatizing in this manner, but many choose to follow their teacher. Rodrigues, who fully expects to be martyred for his God, is given no such courtesy, and instead he is forced to watch as his brothers and sisters are slaughtered before his eyes with the cruel knowledge that he can end their misery by apostatizing himself.
Of course, Scorsese is no stranger to violence when it comes to his films, but the way it is portrayed here—though it may be inaccurate to call it an evolution—is at least a departure from the idiosyncratic, character’s point-of-view approach we come to expect from him. Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork captures agony and beauty in the same frame, with the crucifixions, drownings, and burnings set against a gorgeous, but indifferent, landscape. And the cacophony of insects and crashing waves is joined by a chorus of shrieks and moans of anguish. It borders on the elemental that such exacting torture (take for instance three believers tied to crosses in the ocean) could serve as a tool of both extermination and baptismal rebirth. Yet the carnage here is affecting because it speaks for itself. It is not fetishized, but it is also unmuted. What is most evident in this portrayal of bodily harm, however, is the noticeable absence—of circumstance, of consequence, of intervention. If there truly is a point-of-view in these sequences, it is ours, and it is God’s.
It is then left to us, and Rodrigues, to ponder what God makes of all of this, which becomes even more imperative when the young priest is questioned by the Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) and his deceptively benign interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). Ogata’s performance is a standout, doing more than just embodying the kind of character that has earned Christoph Waltz two Oscars. He also comes across as plainly, hauntingly rational in defending his objective of mitigating the spread of a foreign religion. He understands that this is not just a battle for the hearts and minds of the Japanese people, but with growing European nations jockeying for power, this may be a critical stand to preserve his country from the throes of imperialism. Scorsese recognizes this too, as well as the irony that the same tactics of intimidation and torture employed by the Japanese were used in Christianity’s own inquisition. In the scenes where Inoue and Rodrigues trade philosophical barbs, Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks make sure the two have equal footing, and the stalemate that ensues reveals the doubt and hubris hiding behind Rodrigues’ staunch beliefs. He prays to God for guidance, but there is none to be heard. He aches for deliverance, but there is none to be found.
Faced with an impossible dilemma, Rodrigues, understandably, looks to Jesus as an example, but in that resolution lies the fallacy of an imperfect man attempting to emulate perfection. The irony of his situation underlines an idea also presented in The Last Temptation of Christ, that an act (of faith, apostasy, or otherwise) lacks meaning when its intent is not taken into account. And for all its seemingly good intentions, to be like Christ in this scenario remains a thinly veiled expression of vanity and pride. Is it a sin to deny respite to those who languish? Is there forgiveness for someone who turns from his faith to end the suffering of others?
The latter is of particular importance, so much so that its many layers are peeled back by a certain villager, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), whose actions over the course of Silence take on a biblical trajectory. He first helps the missionaries secure passage to Japan, but later on his actions could be compared to that of Judas, the disciple Peter, or the Penitent Thief crucified next to Jesus. To Rodrigues, Kichijiro is a challenging soul, but one he learns a great deal from. The path of this wayward sinner demonstrates that the life of a Christian is a life in constant flux—of failure and guilt but also redemption and mercy. The morality on display in Silence (and in all of Scorsese’s films) is not privileged to the righteous nor reserved for the wretched. Instead it brings about a crisis of purpose, a conflation of fate and desire.
It was cemented long ago that Martin Scorsese is one of our finest American filmmakers, whose childhood health problems kept him from fully experiencing the world but heightened the way in which he saw it, and time will tell if Silence is a final sermon of sorts, a last shout into the ether of the current state of motion pictures and how far they have come since he first made Who’s That Knocking at My Door? fifty years ago. At this moment, the film does feel lasting, largely because it defies modern convention at almost every turn. While we do get glimpses of Scorsese’s patented subjectivity, it is offset by a staggering humility, borne out of a deep reverence for the themes in Silence, which manifests in a deliberate, but not self-aggrandizing, aesthetic remove. The film’s final shot is a pinnacle of this artistic intent and its director’s longing obsessions, echoing an earlier climactic scene where a simple gesture carries greater meaning. Perhaps that is why Silence feels so monumental. Because it takes us beyond the world Scorsese sees and has shown us for decades and lets us peer into what has always dwelled within his heart.