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No one should interfere with another man’s spirit.

Silence
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Martin Scorsese has now met the pope, so I guess the 30-year slog to make Silence was all worthwhile. I’m dubious that he’d have been granted an audience with his venerable holiness off the back of The Last Temptation of Christ, but then you never know with this one, not even quite how nefarious he may or may not be compared to his predecessors.


In the documentary attached to the Blu-ray, Scorsese mulls of the material (based on Shusaka Endo’s 1966 novel, previously adapted in 1971), that “Everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong”. For the shoguns, the burgeoning trend towards Christianity in seventeenth century Japan represents a threat to their culture, for where the Jesuits make their mark, armadas aren’t far behind. For the priests, this is an opportunity to bring the Word to heathens, to offer them salvation. So why, then, if Scorsese perceives the balance of viewpoints, does the most reasonable stance throughout seem to come from those inflicting brutal torture and punishment on the followers of God?


I suspect the problem is with the half-empty material. By positing “a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity” you are essentially admitting to a faith that is entirely expressed through the willpower of the believer, that all the conjurings of divine instruction and purpose are the individual’s alone. Without an illustration, Terrence Malick-style, of what a priest who felt the presence of God might personify (and this is Scorsese’s lapsed reticence, that both here and in Last Temptation he clings to the materialist level, shorn of its heavenly import), we are essentially left with a redundant religion, one waiting to be knocked down. That doesn’t make Silence an uninteresting film or a failure, far from it, but it does mean that there’s little essential drama in watching a character who doesn’t really feel what he professes to believe be torn down.


And yet, the premise of the picture is, in its makers’ words, of a man who “gives up his faith to gain his faith”. Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues apostosises and from thence leads a life of regular renunciations., Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) comes to see him during his later years, asking for absolution, the man who has made a habit of apostasies and about whom Rodrigues intoned at one point “Father, how could Jesus love a wretch like this? He is not worthy to be called evil”, so bringing full circle the idea of loving the least of Him, and recognising oneself in that person, as Rodrigues is now an apostate himself. It is in this realisation that Rodrigues hears God (“I suffered beside you. I was never silent”) and the silence of God provides validation (“It was in the silence that I heard your voice”).


But this somewhat flip reasoning, that the test and proof of faith is in the inverse to the generally expected flourish of the same, never quite resonates. Much has been made of Rodrigues’ path to apostasy. He is told to “Think about the suffering you inflict upon these people, just because of your dream of a Christian Japan”, and in the filmmaker’s eyes, whether or not he professes otherwise, the verdict of the Inquisitor holds sway, that for Rodrigues “The price for your glory is their suffering”. The Inquisitor says of Father Ferreira, who came before and committed apostasy before, “He is held in great esteem now, which is why I believe he came in the first place”. The implication is clear: these priests have only told themselves they are acting out of faith in God. What they are actually doing is indulging hubris, and self-exaltation. Ferreira points out Rodrigues’ pride as he pleads with him, knowing that he too carried the cross of romanticised martyrdom, of fantasising Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane for himself (“They would never compare themselves to Jesus. Do you have the right, to make them suffer?”)


The problem is, Scorsese is unable to telegraph any conviction, so there never seems to be a really conflict – we never believe Rodrigues really believes, and as a lapsed Catholic the director fails to imbue the film or characters with that sense, even with a sense that such a state of grace could exist. So the salvation of quiet faith seems like a cop out, an easy option, however you slice it. In Silence, the possibility of “true faith” is absent from Garfield and Scorsese’s vision. Only pride. And the knock-on is that, while it’s an interesting idea – validating this interior state of belief as opposed to exterior signifiers – one is left wondering how it is supposed to square with the conviction that it is only by standing up against oppression that change is ever enacted (if one takes it beyond a mere religious principle – and if one doesn’t, one is left merely supposing that Scorsese is coming from a point where faith withers on the vine, that it is all ego and without substance).


Particularly since Scorsese’s somewhat artificial – as in, it never carries the directorial design of a genuine force – whisper of God is preceded by incidents persuading us that it is all in Rodrigues’ mind. So much so that his attempts to protest faith verge on the farcical. No sooner have he and Garupe (Adam Driver) popped up from their hideaway for a breath of fresh air and open sky than Rodrigues pronounces a passing hawk as a sign of God’s blessing on their rash act – upon which they are spied out by locals. With this primer, it should be no surprise that, when he next believes God has paid attention (“Thank you lord, for hearing my prayer”), one of the devotes’ heads is lopped off before his eyes. If the entire film wasn’t so desperately severe in tone, you’d think Scorsese was displaying a dark sense of humour. The same kind of self-supported divine communication is there in Rodrigues’ vision of Jesus staring back in his reflection from a stream (a moment so reverently composed as to be unintentionally funny), and the self-abnegating invitation “Step on me. It’s alright” when presented with a fumi-e (notably, this occurs after Ferreira, his old teacher, has told Rodrigues that Jesus would not let these people die if he were there).


Rodrigues’ sense of faith is immature and facile enough that he asks his captors to test it, an act of arrogance and foolishness that encourages his flock’s suffering. We have seen how mercurial his sense of self-worth is. Before he becomes disillusioned by Kichijiro, he buys into the genuineness of the man’s renewal of faith, which “makes me feel my life is of value”. Rodrigues acts out of ego, rather than selflessness, and it’s ironic that, of the Japanese Christians’ fascination with physical emblems of the church, he frets “I worry they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself” (which could be a wider commentary on iconography-heavy Roman Catholicism), when Scorsese will use a exactly such a material signifier in the final shot, of the body of Rodrigues clutching a cross – he was not an apostate in his heart. I would counter that, in the picture Scorsese has made, rather than the one he thinks he has, Rodrigues was not an apostate because he was never a believer. At least, he never made me believe he was a believer.


I hesitate to suggest part of the problem with this may be Garfield. Rather, I think it’s the nature of the character he’s been given to play. There isn’t enough of Driver’s unrelenting conviction to really provide contrast (although, his is very much the strength of the hard-liner, rather than one you necessarily perceive faith in). Regardless, the standout performance in Silence is far and away Liam Neeson’s.


Much needed too, since I’d all but forgotten just how good he can be, what with the number of disposable action-dad thrillers he’s been churning out of late. There’s a genuine pain and regret to Ferreira from the first scene; you can see the realisation of his lack, of how he doesn’t measure up to what is asked of him. He is presented almost as an inverse Colonel Kurtz, but instead of finding madness, Rodriques’ Willard finds shocking reason and sanity.


We don’t believe Ferreira at first, any more than Rodrigues does, when he professes to be grateful for his opportunity, that it is “Fulfilling to finally be of use” by writing a text that will refute the terms of Christianity. But then he sets out his objection to their promotion of their faith: “The Japanese only believed in their distortion of our gospel. So they did not believe at all. They never believed”. He reveals to Rodrigues something common among missionaries, that indigenous peoples applied the tenets of the Christian faith to a pre-existing local deity, in this case “the sun of God”. One thing is certainly true of Silence: the picture is uninterested in dealing with absolutes. When Rodrigues suggests of Ferreira, “You’re trying to justify your own weakness”, he assuredly is, but he’s also hitting on a very uncomfortable truth for those with a rose-tinted vision of their “calling”.


Ferreira: Only our Lord can judge our heart.
Rodrigues: You said, “Our Lord”.
Ferreira: I doubt it.

There’s a quiet honesty to Neeson’s imploring performance, one that energises the picture in a manner absent from our sojourn with Garfield. Whatever Ferreira’s ongoing religious belief maybe, he does not consider it justifies the deaths of others at his invitation, particularly to an impassive response (“I prayed Rodrigues. It doesn’t help. Go on, pray. But pray with your eyes open”). Later, when the two ex-priests are engaged in pointing out hidden Christian symbols in imported objects, Rodrigues believes he has caught out Ferreira’s admission of persisting faith, the suggestion being that he too nurses a closet conviction. But this rather reduces Christianity to a luxury item, one to flourish at home in secret, a pastime with no real consequence. Scorsese dedicates the film “For the Japanese Christians and their pastors”, which seems a little odd for a picture so reticent of faith having any substance. Would they be so grateful for the dedication, for being told all one can expect from a relationship with God is non-responsiveness, or at best self-deluding feedback?


Nevertheless, Silence is as flawed but fascinating as Scorsese’s other overtly religious entries, Last Temptation and Kundun, reflecting a director who approaches the steps of a mountain he recognises he has no chance of scaling; one might almost assume he has chosen material that justifies his “less than” space in respect of faith. A word for Issey Ogata’s performance as Inquisitor Inoue Mashashige; it’s a brilliant thing, funny and mocking, almost caricatured, but with cunning and grit behind the reason and manners. It goes unmentioned, but the real Inoue had apparently once been a Christian who apostosised. I don’t know that Silence will be seen as another Scorsese masterpiece in time – some proclaimed it so instantly – but it’s his most considered, ruminative picture in two decades. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that it shouldn’t be thing of perfection, since it is reflective of subject matter that refuses to embrace tidy conclusions and neat positions.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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