In his tale of Portuguese Jesuit priests travelling in Japan at a time when Christianity was outlawed, Martin Scorsese returns to the complexities of faith, and makes his best film in 20 years By Christos Tsiolkas.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

A crucifixion scene from ‘Silence’
A crucifixion scene from ‘Silence’
Credit: Supplied

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Martin Scorsese’s Silence, adapted from Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, is the director’s finest work in more than 20 years. I think it both a great film and also a flawed film, and I don’t think this appraisal is necessarily a contradiction. Silence is the filmmaker’s deeply personal exploration of spiritual doubt, but at the same time it is loyal to Endō’s original, a lament for the loss of faith in a transcendent God. It is within this very tension – between Scorsese’s universalist conception of God and Endō’s pessimism that his faith as a Roman Catholic and his love for his country of birth, Japan, could ever be reconciled – that both the power and the confusions of the film reside.

As in the novel, the film concerns two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Francisco Garupe, played by Adam Driver, who persuade the church hierarchy that they be allowed to travel to Japan in order to discover the whereabouts of Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, who it is said has apostatised and is living with his Japanese family. The two young Jesuits, who have been mentored by Ferreira, hope to uncover the older priest’s fate, and in doing so disprove such rumours. In this period, Japan had outlawed the practice of Christianity, including banning missionary activity throughout the country. On their clandestine arrival in Japan, the two men are kept hidden by Christian peasants, who risk punishment and death to continue practising their faith. But after they are betrayed by one of the villagers, the drunkard Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), the two priests are forced to watch their brethren being tortured and executed. They are told that such punishment will only cease if they renounce the Christian God by stepping on a fumi-e, an image of the Christ. Garupe, the more orthodox of the men, refuses and his uncompromising faith leads to his destruction.

It is Rodrigues who is most tormented by the challenge of the samurai authorities, who confronts the question that animates both Scorsese and Endō, of whether unyielding commitment to faith is mere obduracy if it leads to unceasing human suffering.

God’s silence, the deity’s cruel refusal to intervene in the suffering of humanity, is the great anguished theme crucial to both Endō and Scorsese’s telling of the story. But in the novel, this perennial question, which has haunted European modernist responses to faith, is uncoupled from universalism. Throughout Endō’s work, the commitment to Christ is always complicated by cultural and historic forces at work in Japan, which make that faith seemingly absurd. It is not only that the pivot to the faith is a belief in a man who was born on the other side of the world 2000 years ago that makes it incomprehensible to the Japanese, but also that the spread of Christianity is inexorably linked to colonialism. These concerns are there in Scorsese’s film, particularly with the introduction of the Interpreter, played by Tadanobu Asano, who translates between Rodrigues and the fiercely anti-Christian governor, Masashige, also known as the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). It is a controlled and vivid portrayal, one in which the Interpreter’s own silence conveys his distrust for what he perceives as the impenetrable or even dishonourable tenets of Christianity. Gravity, disgust and compassion are all conveyed by Asano with an almost preternatural assuredness, and this controlled anger is absolutely necessary as a counter to the unshakeable faith of the Jesuits. What they understand as conviction, the Interpreter perceives as wilful blindness.

Garfield is an exceptionally fine actor but it may be that he is too young for the role. He is at his best in the film’s earlier sequences, where his righteousness is increasingly challenged by the atrocities he witnesses but also by the almost suicidal resoluteness of the peasants’ faith. Garfield convinces in both his naivety and in his wide-eyed openness to finding himself in a new and foreign culture, one for which his education, training and faith have not prepared him. In this, he and Driver work exceptionally well together, the latter actor never allowing any softening of Garupe’s grim and resolute adherence to Catholic tenets. Driver commits to playing a harshness in Garupe that risks losing our sympathy as an audience, but when he and Rodrigues are separated, I found myself wishing for his return.

Scorsese’s Rodrigues shares in the tortured and youthful rage over the demands of faith and loyalty to creed – be it religious, familial or gangster – that are familiar to us from more than 40 years of his films’ anti-heroes, starting with Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in Mean Streets. Also familiar to us through his cinema is the compromise that Rodrigues finally submits to in order to survive the battle over his faith. This adult necessity for compromise, which also carries with it the attendant weight of shame, is inaugurated by the introduction of the Interpreter and then finally by Rodrigues’s encounter with Ferreira. It is here that Garfield’s youth undermines his performance. Unlike the dignified world-weariness that Asano and Neeson bring to their roles, Garfield can’t quite persuade us that Rodrigues has experienced the scars of wisdom.

Yet the film has a devastating integrity that I found absolutely compelling, even with such reservations. After so many years, Scorsese has, of course, an exceptional control of cinematic language, and some of the sequences in this film, particularly a crucifixion at sea, are not only profoundly affecting but do justice to the sublime notion of the compassion that is arguably the true salvation and grace in the story of Christ. They rank among the great spiritual sequences in the history of film. Scorsese’s command, as well as that of his long-term collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, is evident in how the film visually acknowledges its debt to Japanese cinema without this ever being overstated or forced. These are filmmakers in love with the long history of transcendental cinema, and one can feel
their delight to be working on a subject that has relevance, and a story that means something to them.

In Silence, Scorsese is again taking risks, committing to the necessary ambiguities of both theme and narrative. He’s not relying on the swooning, balletic framing and editing that he mastered in his early films and that have now become almost baroquely self-referential in his most recent work. The early sequences in the peasant village are stilted, the framing and lighting chancing amateurishness. The character of Kichijiro in particular fails to resonate with us, as if in his overidentification with Rodrigues, Scorsese has forgotten how the drunk’s ridiculous but ardent faith is a mirror into which Rodrigues refuses to look.

Arguably, Shutter Island or The Wolf of Wall Street are more proficient, technically accomplished films, but there was nothing to them beneath their surface, and one could sense that the director was bored with the material, repeating himself almost to the point of parody. Silence is close to three hours in length and I was not conscious of time at all, just excited to be in a cinema viewing a work that clearly wanted to explore truthfully, if falteringly, the great questions of spiritual need and yearning.

The violence in Silence is gruelling and terrifying. I don’t think it is any accident that the samurai who presides over the cruellest of tortures is nicknamed “the Inquisitor”. In Rodrigues’s Iberian Peninsula homeland an equally destructive and brutal extermination of heresy was being enacted. The endless beatings and scourings that dominated Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ were numbing in their mercilessness and in their disconnect from any of Jesus’s teaching. By the end of that film, Jesus was nothing more than a lump of meat and there was no experience of sorrow for us in the audience, let alone compassion. We just wanted the sadism to be over. The killings in Silence are at their every occasion a provocation to the God who does not intervene. In witnessing such suffering, Rodrigues does what God cannot do – he must act and he must speak. It is precisely in this understanding that the very different Catholicisms of Endō and Scorsese come to a communion, no matter how precarious or tentative.

As in Endō’s novel, God does answer Rodrigues, and I suspect an audience’s sympathy, their willingness to respond to the film, will in part depend on their reaction to this moment. There have been a number of reviews of the film that upbraid Scorsese for perceived racism or stereotyping of Japanese savagery. This critique is one to take seriously, but I distrust the bad faith that comes from such denouncing when the critic clearly hasn’t read or engaged with the original novel. Silence is one of those rarest of beasts, a great film based on a great novel, and if Endō’s exploration of the very incongruity of Catholicism in the Japanese context isn’t as crucial to the film as it is to the book, I think this is an indication of Scorsese’s very different, very specifically Italian Catholicism. Something similar was at work in his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, where the Christ of the novel, Greek and Jewish and pagan, was not resonant in Willem Dafoe’s almost beatific playing of Jesus. It was Harvey Keitel’s coarse, conflicted Judas who seemed truer to the Jesus of the novel.

This irreconcilable separation between the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the material, the intellectual and the visceral, is clearly central to Scorsese’s understanding of faith and it is no accident that he is drawn to the work of the Japanese Catholic Endō and the Greek Orthodox Kazantzakis, both writers who disturbed the longstanding Catholic tradition that separates flesh from the soul. And, clearly, Scorsese is troubled by this separation. He needs to interrogate it and resist it, even if, like Ferreira and Rodrigues, his abandoning of his faith in it can never be truly complete. In Silence, we are seeing this spiritual confusion being worked out on the screen. This is a staggeringly moving work.


1 . Arts Diary

THEATRE L'amante anglaise

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, February 7-19

OPERA King Roger

Sydney Opera House, until April 3

THEATRE The Encounter by Complicite

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, February 3-April 1

NAUTICAL Australian Wooden Boat Festival

Hobart waterfront, February 10-13

THEATRE I'm Quitting the Pageant

The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, until February 12

CINEMA Fleurieu Film Festival

Various venues, McLaren Vale, South Australia, February 10-11

Last chance

THEATRE Which Way Home

Downstairs Theatre, Sydney, until February 5

MUSIC Churches of Steel Heavy Metal Festival

The Old Exchange, Adelaide, until February 5

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2017 as "Mission eccelsiastical".

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