The Most Painful Act of Love:
Stand in silence in the presence of the Sovereign LORD, for the awesome day of the LORD’s judgment is near. The LORD has prepared his people for a great slaughter and has chosen their executioners.
And in the context of Martin Scorsese’s remarkable and spiritually challenging new film those executioners take the form of 17th century Japan’s ruling elite.
With some justification they object to the presence of Portuguese outsiders attempting to spread what they see as the poisonous religion of Christianity.
What’s wrong with the one they have, the one that suits their culture, they ask – again, with justification; and the answer of the Jesuit will be of course that their Faith is Universal: the one True Faith.
That’s the way arguments start. After all, I guess it could be said that in the 21st century we are still suffering the after-effects of the Third Crusade.
“There has never been a Kingdom responsible for more bloodshed than that of Christ”, says David in Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs. Yes, well… quite. Although certain of our Muslim friends appear to be determined to give them a run for their money.
The Apostate Priests
I should have known better than to expect a simplistic, straightforward look at that most difficult of intangibles – Faith — from a director of the stature of Scorsese; both he and his co-writer Jay Cocks pick up the idea, hold it to the light, subject it to a punishing examination… and then leave it to ourselves whether we believe that there is some Ultimate Being out there listening to us…or if that silence is because there is nothing else. And adapting from Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, they have no intention of making it easy on the audience.
Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) are two Jesuit missionaries who passionately put themselves forward for a journey to Japan where they intend laying to rest the rumour that their beloved mentor Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has become an ‘apostatised priest’: a priest who has turned his back on Christ.
In Japan they initially find a people who reinvigorate their own faiths – an extraordinary village whose inhabitants literally exist underground in order to escape persecution, calling to mind the early Christians of the catacombs.
The joy of these heartbreakingly poor souls at finally having actual padres in their community is so powerful as to ultimately make Sebastião and Cristóvão look even more deeply at their own beliefs and behaviour.
For here and elsewhere Scorsese’s uncompromising camera focuses close and unforgiving on the less appealing aspects of human beings. We might expect to see the glorious, sweeping landscapes of Japan but in many cases we get instead close-ups of rotted teeth or the clasping of filthy, dirty-fingernailed hands that almost recall certain repeated elements from a Robert Bresson film; although, in terms of austerity within some frames, it is unsurprisingly Akira Kurosowa that is more deliberately brought to mind.
And of course, as Sebastião later muses in a different village, where he faces torture, it would be easy for Jesus to have died for the beautiful; how much harder to die for the miserable and corrupt.
I don’t agree with those who find Silence’s running time of 160 minutes excessive. I’ll just dismiss it as another endless example of the erosion of people’s attention spans. It seems, at least to me, that the questions raised here should be of fascination to believers and unbelievers alike. Heck, in the way that the landscape sometimes comes across there is even room for the purely pagan point of view.
The Long Journey of Martin Scorsese
Themes of spirituality versus a more supposedly pragmatic take on Life go well back with Scorsese, to at least 1973’s Mean Streets and that directing credit which signaled things to come by playing over the image of Harvey Keitel shaking hands with the priest; and, of course, playing out through The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun.
That latter film has one of the most gorgeous soundtracks (by Philip Glass) of any in the films of a man who is renowned for his taste in background music. In Silence he uses the title literally and what is there (unconventional and credited to Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge) is so muted as to be non-existent. Take the opening as hushed bird and insect noises almost rise to a crescendo against a dark screen before all sound is cut off with the dramatic title card itself.
Scenes where characters examine with strange fascination their own reflections run through many of Scorsese’s movies, with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull being just three obvious examples. And in Silence the image provides one of the most elegant moments in the film, as Sebastião watches his reflection become the face of the Christ that he has meditated upon for so long.
Oddly enough, this scene reminded me powerfully of True Detective, of all things, where Rusty says: “I contemplate the moment in the Garden. The idea of allowing your own crucifixion”.
And it is the idea of martyrdom that leads to allegations of ego against the young priest. And it may be one of the points of the film: this grim reality of martyrdom, a million miles removed from the sanitized talk we hear all too often from the pulpit.
Other Biblical references run through the film: the heaping of abuse on the priest as he is paraded through the villages; the repeated use of the number ‘three’ (in respect to the Holy Trinity?); even Judas’s thirty pieces of silver has become subject to inflation with the announcement of three hundred pieces for the arrest of Sebastião – and contemptuously thrown at the informer.
The acting is outstanding by all principles but I would like to mention in particular that of Ciarán Hinds who appears only briefly, but crucially, as Father Valignano at the beginning. Here is set the whole tone for what will follow.
And a pure delight whenever he appears is the almost-impish chief inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), who would be likeable if he weren’t so lethally dangerous. He and his translator give real meaning to the expression of ‘the smile on the face of the tiger’.
And it was utterly necessary to have an actor with the presence of Liam Neeson waiting for Sebastião at the end of his journey into the Heart of Darkness. As necessary as it was to have just the correct incarnation of Kurtz waiting for Willard at the close of his journey.
As for Andrew Garfield himself, he is quite brilliant. I left the cinema convinced that if Mel Gibson had seen him before he cast his Passion of the Christ he would have approached him immediately. As it is, he is the main actor in that director’s latest film, Hatchback Ridge.
Silence is not a film for those who wish to be reassured. And let’s be honest, something as momentous as Faith deserves more than the postcard platitudes it too often receives. It is as difficult a film as I expect to see this year – and as worthwhile.
And you may ask yourself, as Sebastião does at one despairing point why, if He can hear our screams, do we receive too often only His silence?
Be silent in the LORD’s presence and wait patiently for him.