Praise and criticism are things a child can offer, but maturity comes from seeing the faults in the things you do admire, and diving into grey areas that could very well be unanswerable from certain perspectives. Admiring masterpieces like, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Selma”? Fun. Venting about pieces of shit like, “The Last: Naruto The Movie” and, “Collateral Beauty”? Close to orgasmic (provided one doesn’t die of an aneurysm in the process of remembering those experiences). But movies that are very, very flawed but manage to have moments of brilliance? Well, those can be uncomfortable. So, one weekend I saw the long-gestating passion project by great moviemaker Martin Scorsese, the 2016-released movie adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel, “Silence”. Here is a movie that is beautiful, brutal, detached and ambiguous…until it slips up by doing too much and not enough in some areas.
So, Scorsese’s movie adaptation of “Silence” is a story about faith that also bothers to pay attention to what that actually means outside of one’s comfort zone, with a stark and mostly detached style of moviemaking that suggests a more nuanced approach than what one would typically get from, say, Mel Gibson or Kirk Cameron. The plot centers on two priests in the 17th century named Rodrigues and Garrpe (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who hear that an admired missionary (played by Liam Neeson) has not only renounced his Christian faith but has become a collaborator for the Japanese government in a string of persecution of Christian peasants and those who aid them. The movie definitely recreates the feeling of being in church with its protracted length and lack of obvious musical scoring to set a mood, instead confronting the viewer with the determination of its characters and the treachery/paranoia that follows. And through this, the movie goes from a journey of both Garrpe and Rodrigues into just a story of Rodrigues going from a devout, determined priest to a frail human being twisted by doubt, the suffering of his flock, and (mis)understandings of not just his mission, but of the country of Japan itself.
We observe Rodrigues perform mass with peasants, using only a few props and pieces of writing, even having to create makeshift Christian symbols and giving away his own valued belongings to peasants in order to hear their confessions, preach to them, and pray along with them. But throughout this journey, he witnesses Christian peasants being tortured by Edo soldiers, and while he toils to comfort and encourage the Christian masses in the face of widespread persecution, he finds little real satisfaction or glory in this work. We witness peasants being tortured and killed as they cry out to a god that does not answer back, and as the turmoil lasts, Garfield’s character finds himself in a spirtual crossroads: does he stand his ground and thus aid in the suffering of his flock, or surrender and (possibly) save the lives of his followers? As he argues with an old Samurai leading the persecution, played by Issei Ogata, about the merits of his beliefs contra those of native Japan, it becomes clear that there is a battle of control raging throughout. The old Japanese believe Christian religion to be a poison invented by European imperalists to destroy them, while Garfield’s character insists that he is simply giving the people the truth, “Because otherwise we would not call it the truth”. By the time he gets to the priest who renounced his faith, it becomes clear that the journey and mission of spreading the word of God is not worth it at all, leading to a harrowing scene where Garfield’s character surrenders, defeated by the culture of a country Nesson’s character characterizes as, “a swamp”.
So, if that description makes the movie sound like a bitter, ugly film that follows the journey of the Portuguese Christian characters (based on historical figures) and sympathizes with them while reducing the Japanese to either dangerous, xenophobic brutes or helpless sheep looking to the Christian priests for guidance…that’s not exactly the case. In fact, the movie’s detached nature suggests a more nuanced take where the three priests are taken in and ultimately swallowed up in their spiritual duties, beliefs and the culture of the land they have (arguably) invaded. There are extended sequences of priests and peasants struggling to communicate to each other, with Garfield’s narration spelling out at certain moments a kind of bewilderment as he tries to help the scared populace, who hide him and his companion priest in an abandoned house while observing religious rites at night in hushed tones so as to not attract the attention of Edo soldiers. See also: a traumatized Japanese Christian played by Yosuke Kubozuka who continously seems to betray Rodrigues and by extension his faith, who once refused to renounce his faith publically while his entire family was slaughtered, leaving him scarred and wandering in a state of fear and a desire for absolute forgiveness. Rodrigues’ consistent interactions with this traumatized figure, along with the sequences of torture and death, suggests that for all of their resolution, the faithful may very well be in over their heads, arguably aiding in the suffering imposed upon them while finding only their own yearning for paradise as the only bit of self-sustaining, “glory” they may find for holding onto their belief onto a silent god.
You may notice me using words like, “seem”, “possibly”, “suggests” and “arguably” a lot throughout this essay. That speaks to how detached the entire affair is as it deals with concepts of faith, absolutism and cultural differences. It also speaks to how the movie looks at a yawning, gray abyss in these interconnected struggles…only to do a giant wiff on said struggles near the very end as it presents an ending that spells out a sort of redemption for Rodrigues. There is an extended prologue after Rodrigues renounces his faith (comforted by the voice of what is presumably Jesus Christ himself, begging the question of where he was this whole time), featuring narration by a Dutch observer who informs the viewer of the rest of Rodrigues’ life. We see him with a new life, with a Japanese wife and child inherited from a dead royal, and we see him monitor goods provided by traders for anything that could suggest Christian messages or imagery. At the very end, we see him given a Buddhist burial, in his hands a wooden cross hidden by his wife. The problem with all of this is that even as the movie shows us this harsh emotional truth through a detached moviemaking style, it relies on a kind of literalism that undercuts the ambiguity the movie provides us. One can blame the medium of the movies for not being able to provide an extra psychological dimension that other mediums like the novel this movie is based on provides…except there are extended scenes featuring Adam Driver’s Father Garrpe, a great performance full of anger, misunderstanding and doubt just like that of Rodrigues. But he is basically set aside for most of the movie only to be given a brutal end at the hands of Edo executioners drowning Christian followers and him along with them. For all of Garfield’s acting chops (and he has plenty, let’s not misunderstand), here he is simply not able to provide the sort of texture that would at least hint at a greater sense of turmoil and pain that would accentuate the movie’s ambiguity.
Another problem is that even though the movie is ambiguous enough to not have the Japanese be JUST enemies or pawns of the priests, the movie still does not give enough time for them to be anything but extensions of Rodrigues’ struggle. Sure, there are extended scenes of Rodrigues arguing with Samurai about belief, but said scenes are repetitive, with the great Issei Ogata eclipsing Garfield even though everything he says can best be summarized as, “Rodrigues, your religion does not belong here. Surrender or aid in the suffering of the people you claim your god loves so much.” A sinister dilemma to be sure, but it hinges on having Christians perform symbolic acts in the form of stepping/spitting on Christian images and performs acts of blasphemy just to avoid certain death. But even doing that does not guarantee survival, for the people who do perform these acts are then hamstrung by their priests refusing to do the same. This is actually a brutal, powerful demonstration of the kinds of trials Rodrigues goes through, but because the movie is so laid back and Garfield’s performance only provides so much texture, it feels two dimensional most of the time and most of the Japanese Christian characters are undefined at best, as opposed to fully-fleshed, ambiguous human beings doing what they can to survive. If anything, this moral dilemma makes every Christian in the movie look absolutely delusional, which would’ve really been an uncomfortable but welcome display of how the fine line between common sense and idealism can be blurred and broached when one introduces religious belief…until the movie makes quite a few telling narrative moves that feel like a cheat in a story that makes a big show about telling a Christian story sans said cheats (which are often called, “Miracles” by believers).
Sure, all of this can just be a misreading of the movie’s messages, but paradoxically the medium of the movies depends on a degree of clarity even when its stories deal with moral grays. And however great Martin Scorsese and company are (and oh my god is this movie gorgeous and horrifying in equal measures thanks to the editing of the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker, the production design of Dante Ferreti, and the cinematography of Rodrigo Preito, not to mention the Art Direction), the movie makes big gestures towards nuance, ambiguity and uncomfortable questions about faith, but falters and shows its hand many times throughout. This may be an uncomfortable ride through a test of faith that will rock the sensibilities of the people who usually flock to, say, “Gods Not Dead 2”, “Fireproof” and other productions, but at the end of the day, according to the movie and it’s inconsistent narrations and moods, Christ wins simply because we call him the truth, the way, and the life. Which may be a place of hard-won solace, but it amounts to little more than a self-serving pat on the back as we deal with crises of faith past and present, from the historical events this movie is based on to, say, the uncovering of sexual molestation in the Catholic church to the open, cynical manipulation of people’s prejudice “justified” by faith by the Donald Trump administration and its allies/enablers.
And that’s a huge problem.
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