Originally published on January 16, 2017. Silence is now available for streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers.
Overview: Upon hearing that their mentor has apostatized, two 17th Century Jesuit priests venture into Japan, where Christianity is outlawed, to find him. Based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō. Paramount Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 161 minutes.
What’s In The Frame?: Martin Scorsese famously said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out,” a sentence that might be as useful as any working definition that has been offered for the art form as it hits its toddler stage. But the sentiment is also useful in its implied reductive comparison. What is and is not in the frame, that which does and does not happen, what we see and know versus what we don’t. The same description is true of story in any format, be it literature, stage, life, or religion.
Early in 2015, a twelve-year-old girl who had spent her young life on the Philippine streets wept as she approached a microphone and asked Pope Francis why God lets suffering happen. Pope Francis struggled to answer her before offering a hug and discussing the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of the question.
In a loose sense, Silence is a film about the newest Pope’s futility in offering any knowledge of comfort—at offering anything but the barest gesture of comfort—to this young lady. Of course, as is explained rather heavy-handedly through the film’s dialogue and opening credits, in which the chirping of crickets is abruptly halted when the word smacks the screen, the film’s title is concerned with a very specific sort of silence that manifests within the loudness and violence of life.
More strictly, Silence is an adaptation of the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō. But where Endō had the benefit of presenting his initial version in a more practiced and contemplative story format and a half a century of subsequent celebration (including Scorsese’s three decade long insistence on adapting the material as a passion project), Scorsese has only his chosen frames and just under three hours to present his best case to a much more immediate critical reaction.
Between Silence’s opening chapter and its epilogue, most of the frames in the film are used on three types of shots, each crafted with functional precision by Rodrigo Prieto. The first type observes Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) in desperate and increasingly-agonized attempts at establishing a spiritual dialogue. Even at his most vulnerable and physically engaged sequences, crawling on rock or dragged by his captors or writhing within his wooden cells, Rodrigues is speaking with direction and framed straight-on and centered, the way one would present a participant in a back-and-forth exchange. The second, less simplistic style of shot is that of cold observation of the grueling acts of torture unleashed upon Rodrigues’ friends and followers, uncomfortably close and still shots, always cut with shots of Rodrigues watching (the first type). These shots could be interpreted as God’s silent response or his complete absence, but the third type of shots, the long and often-skyward view of the seaside Japanese landscape pulled back so far that any captured action feels minimized, would suggest God’s being present in the discussion. At least that he is watching it. In this sense, Silence unfolds like an extended conversation between two entities, Rodrigues and his God, set across the table of existence.
The most transcribe-able content of that conversation is perhaps overwrought, not just within the movie, but throughout human history. Rodrigues seeks a singular answer to a singular question, one older than his religion, one that even the Bible frequently punts on by assuring a future understanding and reward (For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. – 2 Corinthians 4:17), reminding of Christ’s suffering (Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.– Isaiah 53:4), or furtively assuring strength in community, (Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.– Galatians 6:2).
Time has taught us that suffering serves us because all things are relative, and joy would mean nothing without it. Christianity teaches that we are built in model of the multitude of God, who contains all things, including suffering, and his son was sent to feel all these contrasting things in chemistry. Reason teaches us that a world without suffering is more akin to purgatory than paradise, or as Saint Faustina wrote: “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” But nothing has yet taught us the entire lesson of why we must be defined this way. Silence is one of the boldest cinematic exercises in continuing this education, both logically and religiously.
What Isn’t In The Frame: The particulars of Silence will do it no favors in early contemporary litmus tests, Scorsese’s authorship lacking the benefit-of-the-doubt biographical context and somewhat barren of the homeland interest of Endō’s literary telling. Not only does Silence drive a narrative of three white saviors (Portuguese in written character, anything but in assigned actors) struggling to impose their European Catholicism on a powerful Eastern nation with its own established belief system, but it is the followers of the intruding faith exposed to the often-lethal physical torture in order to feed the inner-struggle of the narratively-positioned hero. The script does not help in softening this formula, having Rodrigues observe worshippers as “miserable” and his fallen mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) continually refer to Japan as a “swamp in which nothing can grow,” an assessment that Rodrigues first condemns, but eventually, almost unnoticeably, without so much as a flinch, adopts. All of this added to the uphill climb of just being a Christian-positive movie in wide release during awards season. And if Silence were a standard kind of narrative-driven film, these elements might leave it susceptible to critical and commercial ruin. But it is anything but that…
It cannot be overlooked that the notoriously Catholic-inspired Scorsese uses Silence to subject the Catholicism that he shares with his characters to a Buddhist cross-examination, both in direct government ceremony and character comparison, and the results don’t always work in the favor of his faith. It will be the responsibility and choice of the viewer to bring with them historical context of European Imperialism and atrocities committed in the name of Christianity that are as bad as or worse than those committed in attempt to purge it from Japan in Silence. But even so, even with the intruded-upon and native Japanese culture assigned the role of violent oppressor in Scorsese’s film, there is still exhibited an earnest empathy and respect for their faith set. Faithful or otherwise, any acceptance of Silence as a treatise on human suffering through a Catholic-central lens has to quickly acknowledge that the four noble truths of Buddhism are built upon the same line of questioning regarding the inevitability of suffering and pain. From there, further comparison must be made. The Japanese Buddhists in the film are both unshaken and at spiritual peace where all three Portuguese priests are haunted, unsatisfied, and agonized, their physical or mortal suffering compounded by the suffering of their spirit. As such, only the already-committed Catholic perspective will reduce the cinematic text to one of simple good vs. evil Christian persecution, wherein rationalists should easily relate to the personal anguish of Silence’s Catholic characters while also noting their position as intruding peddlers of a failing religion upon those practicing a more useful accepted philosophy; the violence then becoming a matter of ugly human politics.
The distinction of Western expansionist roles here is also observable in comparison of the film’s early and sole non-Japanese sequence that takes place in St. Paul’s College in Macau, where Rodrigues, Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), and Father Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) walk amongst cold stone surfaces, while Prieto’s work with the Japanese landscapes are astonishing portrait of God’s natural art.
And, of course, that says nothing of the film’s Kakure Kirishitans, or “Hidden Christians,” who, one-by-one prove to possess the certainty and grace that all three fathers forfeit in phases, even as they receive firsthand the torture inflicted upon their clergyman by proxy. In the movie’s most stirring sequence, self-sacrificed Mokisih (Shinya Tsukamoto) in crucified in the rising tide with two of his village people, and the martyred peasant sings a hymnal to express his unshaken faith in the face of certain death. (Sidenote: In an even playing field, Tsukamoto’s limited but powerful performance is every bit as worthy of a Supporting Oscar nomination as, say, Michelle Williams’ equally short role in Manchester by the Sea.)
But, inversely, to dismiss the complex spiritual journey of Rodrigues and, in smaller measure, Garrpe, as simple self-pitying failure of faith is an equal disservice to the film’s layered substance. What matters in Silence isn’t who finds an answer or who accepts suffering or when faith works or fails, but that everyone is seeking the answer by different methods to different degrees of success. Garfield is exceptional in ensuring that balance here, finally maximizing on the screen potential of his naturally sympathetic and emotionally expressive face. Sometimes, Rodrigues seems to be in a fifteen round heavyweight battle with his God. There are times when his prayer line reaches the unmerciful God of Job and other times when he gets through to the God who assured Elijah of his strength.
In The Problem with Pain, Christian philosopher C. S. Lewis promised, “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” Rodrigues’ experience proves this to be entirely untrue when serial-Judas Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) betrays Rodrigues and Christ three separate instances, yet their fates and relationships with God are essentially the same, if Kichijiro’s isn’t more welcome by Christian measure. Garfield plays Rodrigues’ reaction as equal parts duty and disgust, saint-like in his continued provision of absolution to his betrayer, but heart-wrenchingly human in his hesitation.
Then there are the moments of unclassifiable action. When young woman asks Rodrigues what to do if she feels compelled to trample (step upon the image of Christ to earn her freedom from further torment and murder), Rodrigues tells her that it would be okay for her to do so before he is corrected by his peer. I’ve thought about this exchange quite a bit, concluding at different times that it is evidence of his weakness in serving God, his strength in serving God’s children, his human pity, and his fear toward a hopeless situation.
And that’s the crux of the experience of Silence. To critique it as a baseline narrative experience renders a judgment based on political character assessment, but to allow one’s self to engage it with emotional and logical vulnerability is to discover a religiously human experience with no easy conclusions about the characters or their journey.
It might be helpful to note here that Silence is the first irrefutable argument to convince me that I was wrong about Scorsese’s last film, 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street. I was, until last week, one of those American-defensive individuals who took mild and foolish offense at a presumed authorial contempt toward the middle class in the wake of a crippling recession. I know better now than to narrow complexity to presume an authorial intent to editorialize through singular assessments of character. I’ve made note to revisit the film as the opposite edge of the sword wielded by Scorsese in Silence; if senseless suffering is one manifestation, than senseless success and joy of bad people must be another. This silence permeates much of Scorsese’s filmography, and the passing of narrative judgment within this expression would ignore the divine and spiritual calculations of its steadfastly high-minded author.
Consider the final reveal in the closing sequence of Silence. After a stretch that forfeits the narrative occupation of Rodrigues’ mind and spirit, after we watch his living of a new Buddhist life in service to his Japanese oppressors, we are given minimal clues about the continued condition of his faith and spirit until an artifact presents itself within his grasp. Believers can use this as evidence to support the persistence and continuation of his faith. Rationalists can easily use the surrounding flames and his non-Christian ceremony to frame it as more evidence toward the failure of his faith. But a human engagement can end with the certainty that he never stopped wrestling with the problem of suffering. Religion works best when it is not providing answers but accommodating the right questions in service of humanity, in the direction of divinity where possible.
Overall: Just after its initial screenings, I saw a social media post that gathered pictures of quick responses from online audiences and reviewers of Silence, each person insisting, in some phrase or another, that they needed more time before reacting to Scorsese’s new film. The collection of these like-minded reactions was meant as a joke, with the reviewers’ collective disarming meant as the eyeroll-worthy punchline. But this joke only functions within a film culture populated by consumers who have grown to expect immediate critical assessment driven by some basic quality metric, the simplest and perhaps least substantial treatment one can offer any work of art. Why shouldn’t we think about Silence for a while if the film approaches a question that has gone unanswered for millennia, asked by the authors of the Bible, by C.S. Lewis, by Buddhas and saints, all the way down to the current Pope? Questions like this one, reflective and existential inquiries that are both necessary and unanswerable, are the root of religion, regardless of its accuracy. If religion is a human invention, it has been invented to seek these answers, and if religion is of divine truth, then it owes us these answers, even if we have to suffer and work and perhaps die for them. The question, then, becomes whether consumers of film are ready to treat film as a form of sacred scripture, because that is exactly what Scorsese’s new film feels like or at least what it hopes to be. And, if we are willing to commit to it, it is going to take a while for us to decide its value, meaning, and purpose. Assuming, of course, that the value, meaning, and purpose is finite.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures