Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)

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One of the more astonishing things about Martin Scorsese’s Silence is that it is not obviously his work. In other words, while Silence has been celebrated as a labor of love for Scorsese, there really isn’t much “scorseseing” in it — no Brooklyn accents, no “Gimme Shelter” (in fact, hardly any non-diegetic music at all), and limited use of freeze frame, tracking shots, and other quintessential Scorsese techniques. Indeed, it would be forgivable if one were to confuse Silence with the work of a Dreyer or a Bresson or even a Malick. It is a reserved, thoughtful, even aloof film, and therein lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Scorsese had wanted to make Silence since the late 1980s, when he first encountered the eponymous novel on which it is based. Penned by the great Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo, Silence [沈黙] met with critical acclaim upon its release in 1966, winning the Tanizaki Prize as a work of the “highest literary merit.” Since then, its stature has only increased, garnering a notable body of secondary literature and emerging as a “classic” of historical and religious fiction. Indeed, Scorsese’s film is the third cinematic adaptation of Endo’s novel: the noted Japanese auteur Masahiro Shinoda released a version in 1971, and Portuguese director João Grilo offered his own take in 1996. Hence, for all of the talk about Silence being a “passion project” for Scorsese, it is also true that his film falls in a long line of responses to Endo’s novel. This point is essential in understanding the film, lest one see Scorsese’s version as an independent work — say, an expression of his own pious yet pained relation to Catholicism or a bona fide contribution to films about “white saviors.” To whatever extent such perspectives are valid, it is far more accurate to say that Silence really isn’t about Scorsese at all. Qua director, he recedes into the background of the film, thereby implying that Endo’s story is sufficiently powerful on its own.

And what of that story? The plot is, indeed, simple enough. Set in the seventeenth century — several decades after the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 — Silence centers on a trio of Jesuit priests. The first is Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese missionary to Japan, rumored to have renounced his faith when Japanese authorities began to persecute Christians. Dismayed by Ferreira’s alleged apostasy, two of his young pupils — Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who intensively prepared for his role) and Fr. Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver, in a striking performance) — journey to Japan in order to rescue him. Yet, upon arriving in Japan, they encounter a situation even more desperate than they had imagined. The last remaining Christians in the land, almost uniformly fishermen and peasants, are forced to practice their faith in secret. What’s more, the shogunal authorities carry out periodic trials, where persons are required to repudiate Christianity in public, typically by stepping on an icon [fumi-e] of Jesus or of the Madonna and Child. Some Japanese Christians disavow their faith, but many do not, and they are tortured and often executed. Perhaps the most stunning example of this torment, both in the novel and in Scorsese’s adaptation, is the days-long process of crucifying Christians at sea:

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As the tide comes in, the water creeps up to the victims’ necks — and even higher; those who don’t drown are eventually done in by exposure and exhaustion. Scorsese, like Endo, depicts this event with judicious restraint: there is nothing glorious in such suffering, at least not recognizably so. Indeed, as the film continues, and as the persecution intensifies, doubts begin to gnaw at Rodrigues and Garupe. What are they supposed to do for the faithful? To leave Japan would be to abandon them, but to stay exposes them to danger. After all, the victims are not only dying in order to preserve their faith, but also to protect the last two priests in Japan. And yet, there is a bigger problem: why does God allow such hatred and oppression? If the suffering of the poor and the humble doesn’t incite God’s justice, what will? Is there even a God at all?

Ultimately — and without giving away too much — it is Rodrigues who is forced to wrestle with these questions most acutely. That Scorsese (again, like Endo) leaves his fate in doubt ensures that the story never becomes trite or grandiose. But he is making a theological point is as well. The English word “silence” comes from the Latin silere, which means “to be quiet or still.” Thus “silence” is not a making or a taking; it is a passio, a “suffering.” The one who is silent is one who relinquishes control.

It makes sense, then, to name a story about suffering Silence. But the suffering depicted in Silence is not just any suffering. It is, first and foremost, a suffering modeled after Jesus Christ, who remained silent under persecution (Mt 26:63) and finally was put to death on the cross. Endo’s novel makes this connection clear when Rodrigues is faced with the decision to step on the fumi-e: “Trample!” he hears Jesus say, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” In his abasement, Rodrigues comes to know the abased Christ far more intimately than he had before. He comes to know not only the humility of Jesus’ life, but also the humility of God’s patience with humanity — a patience that he, stripped of his identity and vocation, now needs in the utmost.

To be sure, the insights gained from suffering are often the most incisive, if also the most painful. And perhaps few things explain Christianity’s perseverance as well as its insistence that humility and suffering are virtues that teach us about, and lead us to, the divine. Both Endo and Scorsese seem to grasp this point well, both as Christians and as artists, though many in the media have seen it otherwise. Silence has been criticized for being too long, too boring, and, ironically, too quiet, and it has generally struggled during “awards season,” garnering but a single Oscar nomination. Some of these criticisms are fair. Silence lacks the dash and flair of Scorsese’s best work, and one senses that he let (!) his devotion to the subject matter govern his direction. But, in another sense, isn’t that the point?

I end with an anecdote: I saw Silence in Center City, Philadelphia in early January, roughly a week before its general release in the United States. The previous weekend I had seen Manchester by the Sea in a suburban theater; it was packed, and spectators were crying throughout the film. However, when the end credits began to roll, audience members quickly got up and made their way toward the exits.

Silence was different. Though the crowd was a bit smaller and less conspicuous than that of Manchester by the Sea, no one budged as the film came to a close. Moreover, there was hardly any talking; it was as quiet as a theater could be. I was surprised. My initial feeling was that Silence was a good, not great, Scorsese film. But as the audience’s contemplatio persisted, punctuated only by the nature sounds accompanying the end credits, it occurred to me that Scorsese’s film had met its objective. Silence was never about him or “awards season.” As with much religious art, it is meant to elicit self-reflection and to open up a space where God, known negatively through human impoverishment, might be encountered. It is a “passion project,” after all.