Where to even begin with Silence.
Martin Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker. The Departed is a masterwork that served as mine and countless other’s introduction into the world of cinema. To survey the diverse array of films Scorsese has made is to attend film school: to learn how to read a visual story, to realize that every frame has meaning and is communicating something and that, when done expertly, the experience of a film can be profound. It’s to learn the ID of Scorsese: the themes he’s preoccupied with, the ideals he’s interested in exploring. Faith is one of those ideas. The Last Temptation of Christ is likely his masterpiece, a film about Jesus Christ, a legend treated as more than man, and it tests his faith and what his martyrdom means on a human level. Silence is about an ordinary human, not the son of God, facing a similar test of faith. When Scorsese tells this story about a real man in the real world, the grim realities of slavish devotion to faith and dogmatic thinking are exposed for the true devastation they wreak. Faith and morality are not so easily reconciled together.
Silence is literally a film about a white savior: Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver portray missionaries who go to Japan to spread and strengthen their religion, and also find a lost priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). But it is not a careless white savior film, this is not simply a repetition of a problematic trope. It is an examination and subversion of that trope: it recognizes the hypocrisies of Garfield’s priest and the pain his mission brings to the people he claims to want to save. Multiple times Japanese characters remind him that, had he or Christianity never come to Japan, none of this violence would be happening. He fashions trinkets, small representations of Christianity that he passes out to the Japanese villagers, and explains in narration his worry that they’re more taken with those physical tokens than with actual faith. He then goes on to state that he even had to give up his rosary beads, and he says it without awareness of the irony. He constantly condescends towards and loathes Kichijiro, one of the best characters in film all year, a Judas figure in the story played with crazed, sometimes comic intensity by Yosuke Kubozuka, tragically trapped in a Sisyphean cycle. Kichijiro continuously betrays Garfield and the village but always returns to confess. Garfield fumes that the man doesn’t even deserved to be called evil, but fails to recognize that, for all his faults, he continuously puts himself in danger to return to the faith.
Sacrifice for the greater good, putting oneself in harm’s way for the betterment of others at great personal cost, is a quiet thematic current through much of Scorsese’s work (the Last Temptation of Christ, the Departed, even Kyle Chandler’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street). Elia Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront is one of the most important films in Scorsese’s life, partially because he identified with the struggle Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy went through: the choice between keeping your head down and allowing a harmful structure to continue unchallenged, as it’s always been, or to speak up and risk condemnation or retribution. Scorsese grew up in Little Italy surrounded by organized crime, where silence was the norm. No one talked, they let the violent mafia operate uncontested. In Silence, he approaches that dilemma through a different, fascinating lens. Rather than come from a place of clear right and wrong, he comes through the point of view of Andrew Garfield’s devoted missionary, a man who cherishes his faith above all else, and who watches helplessly as innocent people are tortured and killed. Except he’s not actually helpless. He can end that pain and suffering, but to do so he must renounce his faith. This is not Terry Malloy testifying against the mob. This is a priest testifying against his God. Our point of view is so close to Garfield’s that it feels like a torturous decision, until you realize the context. The choice maybe should have been clear all along. When Garfield meets a priest, converted from Christianity to Buddhism, he’s disgusted. The priest asks him, “Am I really so different?”. Maybe slightly. But he remains a human being. They are people. Whatever their faith, their beliefs, they are largely the same. Just wearing different religious garb.
The film places so much emphasis on religious imagery, particularly physical tokens of Christianity. Depictions of Christ are everywhere, as are crucifixes, and the absurdity of such devotion to symbols breaks through the seriousness Scorsese frames the film with. It is told closely from Garfield’s perspective, but there is an awareness beyond it. An awareness of the evils of imperialism, even if Garfield believes so steadfastly in his righteousness. It is important we take every step of this journey with Garfield to understand the extremes of his devotion, so that we can then contextualize everything that happens outside of it. While most films about white protagonists in foreign lands feature the locals as monolithic antagonists, Silence is populated with nuanced and interesting Japanese characters. Tabanobu Asano puts forth a textured performance as a sympathetic interpreter, and Issey Ogata has one of the most memorable roles of the year as the Inquisitor, a man whose aim is to eliminate Christianity from Japan, but Ogata’s performance is upbeat, fun, comic, and sometimes charming. Scorsese approaches this story from the Portuguese missionary’s point of view, but understands and dramatizes the nuance of the Japanese perspective as well. This is a film that I suspect will only reward further viewings, it is dense and complex and hard to word a definitive take on.
But one’s thoughts on this film, or any great films or works of art, shouldn’t be definitive. When a work is this complex, it deserves complex thought in return. Silence may be flawed. It is messy, long, not always lively or engaging, the cinematography is mostly bleak and hazy, there’s a debate to be had about the performances. But it is fascinating. It is challenging. It is rich, it is profound, and there is mastery behind it. It is rare that a mainstream American film is this challenging, with this much weight and artistry behind it, rare that film not only questions its protagonists but also its audience. Martin Scorsese has made some incredibly tight, entertaining, energetic, and lively films. Silence is not one of them. But to engage with this film is to challenge one’s perspective and morals, and regardless of how one may end up feeling about it, I do believe that an audience can work out and develop further truths or growths in personal thought and feeling as a result of the work Scorsese put together. I’m not sure there’s much higher praise for a work of art than that.