Silence (2016)

“Silence” is a monumental, breathtaking, unforgettable film, questioning the nature and function of religion, martyrdom, imperialism, materialism, idolatry, and faith. I’m shocked how far Scorsese went in confronting issues so many (whether Catholic or otherwise, or even religious or otherwise) would take for granted as basic cultural assumptions. Credit must of course be given to the author of the book the film is based on, Shūsaku Endō, as well as the co-author of the script alongside Scorsese, Jay Cocks, but there’s something uniquely provocative about seeing Scorsese, with his fairly well-publicised religious background, create something as confronting and challenging as this. For all the controversy around “The Last Temptation of Christ”, there’s a huge gulf between just humanising Christ in a film that very clearly telegraphs it’s highly interpretive, and questioning and subverting so many of the principles Christianity and Judeo-Christian nations take as their foundations.

Emulating Jesus. Respecting Christian iconography. Martyrdom, sacrificing yourself for a good cause. Spreading and sharing Christian values. While that last one, proselytizing, has somewhat fallen out of fashion in regards to the focus it once had, the first three are universally seen as good things by Christians, and by many cultures and nations steeped in Christianity. But they are not as basic a directive as simply “help others instead of hurting them”. They seem fairly unquestionable, especially for an ostensibly Christian film by an ostensibly Catholic filmmaker, but “Silence” confronts them, brutalises them, subverts them.

Trying to live as Jesus did, to follow his example, becomes extreme arrogance – “The price for your glory is their suffering”.  Respecting Christian iconography becomes an egotistical display of pride – “Just putting your foot on the thing won’t betray your faith”. Martyrdom becomes a vainglorious curse condemning innocents to emulate that suffering against their own interests – “Your martyrs may have been on fire, Father, but it was not with faith….They’re dying for you”. Spreading the Christian word becomes hubristic folly blind to the actual needs of people – “Think about the suffering you have inflicted on these people just because of your selfish dream of a Christian Japan”. The fundamental goodness and righteousness found in helping others is asserted – “It’s fulfilling to finally be of use in this country” – but only after stripping way all the precepts, traditions, and customs of religion. Helping others, and helping one’s self through a personal relationship with divinity, is concluded as good, righteous, and fulfilling, but the idea of religion, any one religion, as the sole method to achieve such goals is broken apart.

A character that initially appeared solely antagonistic states ”To help others is the way of the Buddha and your way too. The two religions are the same in this. It’s not necessary to win anyone over to one side or another when there is so much to share”, but by that point of the film, when we’ve seen so much suffering caused by efforts to spread and uphold Christianity, can such a statement truly be held just as a villain philosophising? How many have to suffer and die before the tangible well-being of humans becomes more important than the abstract respect given to institutions? Father Rodrigues extols the supposed universality of the truths within Christianity, but Earth is not a divine realm like Heaven (or, rather, “paraiso”), it is a land of divided peoples from vastly different cultural contexts. Is there a point at which defending Christianity can become an “un-Christian” choice?

Faith can make one strong enough to withstand the suffering that can come with helping others. A personal religious relationship can do so. A prescriptive effort to ignite same religion in others, regardless of their own unique personal and cultural context, can end up causing more of that very suffering. Is the greater Christian act to uphold, defend, and grow Christianity, to spread the word and example of Christ…or to follow that word and example one’s self, even if that means subverting, or even condemning, that religion? Is faith inherently tied to religious institutions, or does it exist independently, with those institutions merely a human channel for it?

None of these questions are simply or easy, and Scorsese nearly entirely refrains from answering them in platitudes. He approaches them, remarkably, relatively even-handedly. I believe it’s through breaking down and brutalising faith so much in the film, that it can be built back up and asserted again, as I believe the closing moments of the film signify. Not a reassertion of religion, of institutions, of Christianity as cultural imperialism, but of the strengthening and healing powers of faith, personal faith, one’s one relationship to divinity. Perhaps God is silent to all human interactions, but I do not think Rodrigues’ God was silent to his personal suffering and experiences. On the individual level, faith can be remarkably powerful and empowering, but when it extends to any social level, whether in a community, institution, or nation, it inevitably melds with cultural and political aspects, and I believe there is a distinction between faith as a personal relationship and faith as an institutional one. I believe the film shows, particularly through Rodrigues, Ferreira, and Kichijiro, that one can be entirely “christian” without actually being Christian.

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Backing off from the big ideas in the film, to address it on a more tangible level, it’s eminently well-crafted. I absolutely love how few Scorsese conventions it uses – just like the concept in the film itself, it examines whether one can embody an ideal and a principle without indulging in the requisite iconography. Scorsese refrains from his usual style (there’s barely any music, barely any gory violence, barely any frantic editing, the characters are extremely solemn, there’s little in the way of visual trademarks, and so on) yet it remains so very much a Scorsese film. Just as some of the priests of the film end up refraining from all the iconography and traditions of Christianity, yet remain very much “christian”. Aesthetics, customs, material aspects, they are superficial. They are not identity, they are not faith, they are things that facilitate identity and faith. They have their uses – the cinematography in “Silence” is excellent at positioning the viewer in the mindset of the priests, hearing nothing from God, as the camera nearly always refrains from any extra wide or bird’s eye shots signifying omnipotent viewing at a macro level, and the material trinkets Japanese Christian villagers covet help them stay unified and strong – but it’s what lies beneath where the actual merits are drawn from – Scorsese’s larger vision driving the film, and the villager’s fundamental goodness and care for each other.

There are some small aspects of the film that rubbed against me a tad. The switch of narrators in the third act felt jarring. The third act was also host to some pacing issues and ending fatigue. The message about Japanese Christians displayed in the credits, while of course worthwhile, I felt almost undercut the even-handedness of the film (although displaying “For the greater glory of God” in Latin on that intertitle had me musing over whether there was an implication behind that “greater”, tying back into the idea of faith transcending religion, so to speak). Like Scorsese’s previous effort, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, the commanding length of the film seems an intentional technique to submerge the viewer into the character’s frame of mind, but it still feels a bit much at times. Some of the narration also lapses into feeling overly expository at times. Those are really all my complaints though, and I feel they’re relatively minor.

I found the film to be a masterful, enormously earnest examination of very complex and challenging issues, told with the utmost of care, and through extraordinarily talented people (not just Scorsese, but also the phenomenal cast, the excellent team behind the sound design, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, and the efforts of many more). I give it five rosary beads, and a sun of God.

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