by Niles Schwartz
As Christ said to Judas before the great betrayal, “That thou doest, do quickly.” I’m a-gonna try to write about Silence, and quickly, for publication tonight. Such a capacious film prompting a critic to say so much stifles the work, as 48 hours after seeing it Silence is a film whose images, sounds (or lack of sound), references, and performances won’t leave me be. I hope to write something more voluminous about it soon. But here, like the film’s Jesuit missionary Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) stumbling frenetically through grassy Japanese hills, I’m setting down this “review” of 2,000 words as a template for whatever comes forth later, praying not to betray better reasoned thoughts still in their embryonic development.
Among the many remarkable things about Martin Scorsese’s Silence is what it isn’t. A picture as monumental and rich as it is unfashionable, this is one of the most significant curves thrown by a director working under the auspices of studio distribution since Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the 30-years-in-the-making 159-minute “psycho-sexual thriller” from 1999, hidden from critics and audiences until the last minute (with an arguably duplicitous trailer to boot), at last unveiled as a deliberately paced intimate drama drifting through its quaternical structure, flashing dreamworld insight onto the proverbial surfaces of (an ersatz) contemporary Manhattan. Silence: also 30-years-in-the-making (and, hey, 159 minutes too), structured in four parts of varying length, moving forth meditatively, distinct in what it withholds just as much as what it displays. Kubrick showed us Nicole Kidman’s posterior and then shut our eyes to the title “Eyes Wide Shut,” and Scorsese saturates us in deafening nature sounds before covering our ears with the title card “Silence.” The presumed Oscar-bait epic of epics–set in 17th century Japan, era of the samurai!–resists a soaring David Lean/Akira Kurosawa scale (to say nothing of Roland Joffe’s Jesuit missionary drama The Mission of 1986, thankfully) and moves anxiously through its alien setting in a way that necessarily settles it into a God-forsaken “swampland,” the transcendental again peeking through decorous local formalities in flashes. Once again, critics and audiences are baffled, some restrained but respectful, others fawning with adoration, and then some quite angry (one major critic tweeted that it was shrewd of Paramount to screen Silence so late for most of the nation, thereby avoiding most “2016 10-worst lists”). The movie wars wage on. Is Silence a rewarding and absorbing film by a filmmaker at the top of his game? Is this passion project too solipsistic and indulgent (as Salieri chides Mozart in Amadeus, “You didn’t even put in a couple of good bangs to let the crowd know when to clap.”)? Or, following the most tiresome trope of the cultural commentariat, has this 74-year-old establishment white guy made something retrograde, “un-woke” (the [sighs] White Savior thing*)?
An abstract of Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel reads ostensibly like a retread of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and so by ’70s Movie Brat association, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: In 1630s Japan after the shogunate has outlawed Christianity on pain of torture and death, the revered Portuguese missionary Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has reportedly renounced his faith. Two of his most devoted students from Lisbon, Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe** (Adam Driver), cannot believe their teacher would submit under torture. They plead to their superior in Macao (Ciaran Hinds) that they be allowed to go to Japan and find out the truth about their Ferreira, who’s since been compelled to fully assimilate with Japanese culture, taking a wife and children. Guided to Nagasaki by the destitute alcoholic Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), Rodriguez and Garrpe find the Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), Japanese converts, and administer the sacraments to them while evading local authorities who have put sizable bounties on the heads of all priests. The “Inquisitor” samurai who administers these laws and oversees the torture and execution of Christians is the mysterious Inoue (Issey Ogata), a formidable adversary purportedly responsible for overturning Ferreira’s religious devotion. We wait expectantly for the callow Rodrigues–the story’s Willard or, forgive me, Luke Skywalker if you want–to confront the great Inoue and redeem the fallen Father, fulfilling the layout of heroic mono-myth.
But again, Apocalypse Now this is not, or using Japanese forebears, it’s less Seven Samurai than Ugetsu (explicitly quoted with a boat moving through thick estuary fog). There could have been so many ways to adapt Endo’s text as a more digestible motion picture, with Lubezkian tracking shots exploiting landscape or, as in Scorsese’s gangster pictures, playing up the intensity of torture and execution with crushing ferocity. A screenwriter could have sidestepped the novel’s content ever so slightly and allowed these familiar actors (Garfield, Driver, Neeson) to bask in juicy monologues playing up their “relatability” to 2017 viewers (for months, part of the movie pundit hype had to do with how this would be Neesom’s payoff Oscar; not so much, alas). The story’s contours invite its appropriator to craft a film harshly critical of European colonialism and religious absurdity (Endo’s book was originally denounced by Catholics and embraced by the atheistic Left of the 1960s), or conversely, a triumphal feel-good affirmation of faith that breaks through the darkness, much like another recent gruesome film by a Catholic director starring Andrew Garfield with Japanese antagonists, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (the book later became canonical religious literature in league with Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor, which I guess precludes Gibson’s Christianity to say nothing of the sort one finds in God’s Not Dead stuff, but I digress). It could have had the customary musical accompaniment, if not a “sweeping” film score with hackneyed “orientalist” touches, the New Agey highs that Peter Gabriel gave Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) or Kundun‘s (1997) mellifluous repetitions by Phillip Glass. But no. There’s a notable absence, or muffling, of score here, a resistance to authorial vanity.*** This has been noted considering Scorsese is a director known for his subjective approach, smothering his ego on his canvas, even with his “directed by” credit beginning with Mean Streets. Sight and sound are exact, but restrained. But even there, like a good Catholic, Scorsese understands that this itself is pride. The formal approach connects to what Silence is about. Rodrigues expects to be martyred, emulating Jesus Christ or one of the saints, hoisted in glory on the cross or in a blazing pyre. No.
In Last Temptation Judas tells the elderly Jesus, who’s since lived a “normal” life after Golgotha, “Your place was on the cross. What are you doing here with women and children? What’s good for men isn’t good for God.” The opposite is the case for Rodrigues, and just as challenging. His story is hurled from one desired frame to another, the Baroque portrait of Christ that he adores becomes the weathered fumie, a bronze picture of Jesus that the Japanese apostates must place their foot atop. So too is the religious epic of faith (or the “critique of faith” desired by the less pious) laid out in an oblique, paradoxical manner upsetting an audience’s expectations. Luxurious landscapes are there, but we’re hustled forth through the images, as these characters, unable to reconcile themselves peaceably to painful and tragic circumstances, are kept mainly in medium shots: move along. Rodrigues and Garrpe, confined in hiding for long periods of time, decide to bask in the sun only to be jarred back to fear and trembling. Violence meanwhile plays out indifferently, and so is all the more cruel, upsetting our role as witnesses. Among the films to which Scorsese gives a nod are Claude Landzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which both wrestle with this theme by nature of their very presentation. Death isn’t an apotheosis. It’s customary, part of a series of endless repetitions. A crucified seaside martyr sings a hymn as his consciousness fades under the tide, but it’s not rousing or especially tragic. His strained body offers only words, exhausted and garbled, smothered by matter and time before whimpering out. The meaninglessness of the Passion, of taking up one’s cross and emulating the suffering of Christ, is more terrifying than an accompanying non-diegetic minor key, which at least carries the reassurances of another world outside and guiding the action: as the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! earlier last year showed us with Saul’s encounter with Christ, “DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT.”
Shoah and Salo are films detailing authoritarian evil, seen and unseen. The moments of compulsion involving local governors over the Kakure Kirishitan and the missionaries can’t help but remind us of re-education camps instituted by other regimes of the last century, and here the film intimates something beyond the religious genre categorization, the theme of human freedom. In the abstract, Scorsese’s return to the religious moviedom throws back to the epics that inspired him as a youth, as one could point out, for example, Cecil B. DeMille’s explicit reminder how The Ten Commandments (1956) should be considered in light of the Cold War. But Scorsese lays out ideas of freedom and confinement in an exacting manner with other influences. In addition to old favorites like Ford and Hitchcock, Scorsese’s precedent models here are likely the “Transcendental Style” subjects studied by his colleague Paul Schrader–Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson–and in using their visual and aural sensibilities to guide him, Silence works through its forward exposition to smother us in a startlingly distinct sensory identification of its characters inhabiting the godless wasteland on display. We’re soothed into the absence of God we discern outside the theater through incessant cohabitation with phenomenon. Nothing intercedes on behalf of those suffering. Were we expecting it to, really? The beautiful portrait of Christ is the elevated experience of memory. But there’s nothing. In imperious grids and boundaries, how incongruent are the mantras, prayers, and questions hidden, secret and silent truths obfuscated by history’s official formalities. This film takes up the Christian existential problem of the Self wrapped up in its onion layers and waiting before the Button Molder comes to collect it to his furnace. Does it matter what one believes or thinks or feels, and seeing how vacuous death appears, drained of meaning, why not submit?
For this initial “review” I’ll resist any “spoilers,” as I know several people unfamiliar with the book were earnestly caught up in the suspense as to whether or not Rodrigues himself will apostasize, and more significantly, if God will indeed break His silence and speak to him.**** Nor will I investigate the questions presented in the picture’s epilogue, leaving us with a finale that could spiral the wandering mind’s eye backwards through the film as it fashions its labyrinthian inquiry to our nature and, apropos for a filmmaker caught up in what he refers to as “the Persisting Vision” (the title of Scorsese’s Kennedy Honors speech, which one could argue is a medial cinema history lesson, just as it’s an important insight into the director’s private world exposing itself to us), how we see. Silence features an array of convergences and what we don’t see is just as important as what we see, particularly concerning the story’s most looming omission: Europe. A film fraught with existential paradigm shifts, the unspoken context deals with what’s happening thousands of miles away (and several years removed from Rodrigues and Garrpe’s sightlines), as four imperial powers (England, Spain, Holland, Portugal) vie for power, Catholics war with Protestants, and tortures similar to what we see here are being carried out by the Catholic Inquisition (the Jews had long since been expelled from many countries, and just 30 years before the action in Silence, the Moriscos driven from Spain). Newton has just been born, Descartes was beginning his meditations, and Milton on the precipice of examining the problems of freedom in Paradise Lost. Paradigm shifts abound without and within.
I suspect several commentators and critics who’ve stumbled on Endo’s perspective literary “trick” are stuck on this European omission the same way critics of Scorsese’s last film The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) couldn’t stomach how the filmmaker, in Dr. Strangelove mode, refused to show the financial victims of Jordan Belfort, the filmmaker’s most seductive anti-Christ. It’s Inoue (an incredible multifaceted turn by Ogata, his grinning countenance eerily similar to Aldo Valletti’s pervy “President” from Salo, but his wit registering the most sensible rationality with which modern secular audiences can identify and appreciate) who exposes the ulterior motives of the Christian mission for Japan, Garfield’s apoplectic responses reminding us how challenging it is to step outside of our tribal parameters and “love the alien,” putting ourselves in the Other’s shoes and seeing with their eyes. The most tedious of viewers will meanwhile point out the inconsistencies of the Western actors’ accents, but this directorial gesture is consistent with a pre-modern setting when European languages (that is to say, dialects backed by armies) were still being codified regionally and yet an ideology would find a Portuguese and Italian psychologically uniform within a church’s environs. That ideology, however, does not translate in the axioms we see in this film, the “swampland” where Christianity cannot grow, and if the outlawed religion is accepted, only its countenance is similar in practice as the Kakure Kirishitans have essentially assimilated this Western God with their bygone Japanese ones. In adapting a Japanese author (who inhabited Western characters), Scorsese and his longtime writing partner Jay Cocks have conscientiously made a film about the problem of translation where the perfect transubstantiation of the Eucharist (bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ) finds no analogue in our language, the Word restricted by terrestrial boundaries. With apologies to fans of Arrival, this is a far more substantial (and cosmological) inquiry into the problem of language and meaning. The Word or Logos, the incendiary transcendental spark holding totality, is aspired to but never fully ascended. A confessional, baptism, or canonical inquiry between Rodrigues and his flock never achieves consonant clarity, and the declaration of faith can never hold in that totality and resolution of the absolute. Through the story’s most dynamic relationship, the priest Rodrigues and the fallen betrayer Kichijiro, there’s an understanding that Christianity is a constant conversion, just as the transient Self can never be completely realized and held pristinely in immaculate permanence like the icons hovering over Christians. Interestingly, this problem follows an audience’s relationship to this strange pre-Newtonian film and these unfamiliar characters, at whom we may scoff (“Why is God silent? Cuz there is no God, duh.”) The “silence” of the title does not only refer to God.
I conclude with my impression that Silence itself feels like something from another world. I can’t say if this has to do with Scorsese’s obdurate disparity from where movies have gone in the 21st century, as he acknowledges his way of cinema, in terms of production and exhibition, is something of the past, he, Steven Spielberg, and Clint Eastwood remaining the creative anomalies within the studio system. The sagacious artist is conscious of dimming fortune in his twilight (asked in interviews about his voluminous “in-development” list of future projects, Scorsese has recently predicated, “If I’m ambulatory”), and there’s been mention of how Silence conspicuously references 7 Women (1966), John Ford’s final film (also about missionaries encountering brutality in Asia). I can’t help but feel there’s a hidden roar exploding through its whispers, the image preservationist in tandem with the unquenchable truth dimly alight private thoughts while hushed through customary public presentation, the frame and official formalities of the world dictating that truth, like images, doesn’t matter anymore. Hot takes and mass media crave the whore of “relevance,” I guess, and in this sense–and in perfect harmony with a story and faith about affirming paradox–I can’t think of a more important theme right now than the longing for freedom whispering throughout Silence.
* Read Glenn Kenny’s take on that aspect here.
** Pronounced “Garupe,” and listed so in the film’s end credits. I’m taking cue from the novel and too lazy to decide which is which.
*** This isn’t at all true, turns out, on seeing the film again. Turns out Scorsese, with old pal Robbie Robertson, has assembled a lot of source music in addition to Kim Allen Kluge & Kathryn Kluge’s innovative score. Like Scorsese’s authorial touch, much of it is deeply hidden, the formal approach a wonderful mirror to the historical situation depicted.
**** I will say that as a reader of the novel, there is a climactic moment that I had no clue how one could adapt effectively, any imagined approach from my meager creative mind, anyway, feeling gimmicky, pretentious, cheap, overreaching, etc. We can argue if Martin Scorsese is indeed our greatest living director or a privileged old guy coasting on his past achievements (and even there, Silence is a very low-budget film for him; $46.5 million, but apparently more than half of that for certain lawsuits and fees, indicating, inflation adjusted, this is his cheapest endeavor since Last Temptation of Christ‘s “$8 million all-in” from 1988), but, for Endo’s book, he’s up to the challenge and makes the scene in question a GOAT achievement that had me riveted and emotional upon thinking of it while walking home from the theater.