By Adam Nayman
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S. Paramount Pictures
The cinema of Martin Scorsese is often discussed in terms of its influence on other filmmakers. But there is plenty of evidence in recent years to suggest that the director is also chasing his shadow, or maybe staring down his own legacy. These self-citations are often obvious, like The Wolf of Wall Street’s intermittent winking replays of classic bits from Goodfellas, but they’re also sometimes buried in the mix, as in Shutter Island, which features a blink-and-miss-it cameo from Elias Koteas as a mental-ward patient who looks and sounds suspiciously like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver—a skewed allusion in a film that’s both generically and geographically far removed from its predecessor’s urban Gothic milieu.
With this in mind, there is a moment in Silence where the holy man played by Andrew Garfield looks down into a Japanese mountain stream and, for an instant, sees the face of Jesus Christ peering back at him. It’s the keynote image of a film whose hero is forced to confront two equally terrifying possibilities—that the Son of God is either indifferent to his suffering or absent altogether—and as such, it’s appropriately complex and double-edged: a crystalline hallucination at once suggestive of pride and humility but which also combines a long-standing mythological and artistic lineage. It’s the myth of Narcissus glimpsed through the prism of Lacan, and it’s the protagonist of Kundun likening himself to “the moon on water.” It’s also Travis Bickle interrogating his bedroom mirror. Garfield’s Father Rodrigues doesn’t speak during this scene, but the question still comes through loud and clear: “Are you talkin’ to me?”
The padre and the psychopath are figures situated at either end of Scorsese’s career, but as they gaze at their reflections, they also mirror one another: one can find within these two very different films the parallel plights of men in the midst of desperate introspection. The continuity makes sense insofar as making Silence has been on Scorsese’s mind since the 1980s, when he first read Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel (which was already adapted into a movie in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda). Like the similarly long-gestating Gangs of New York (which was also co-written by Jay Cocks, who shares screenplay credit with Scorsese here), it’s a project that all but begs to be read as somehow summative of its maker's sensibility even as it's easy enough to imagine an alternate timeline where it was realized ahead of schedule, maybe as an east-meets-west companion piece to Apocalypse Now at the crest of the first easy riders/raging bulls wave.
Whatever this hypothetical version of Silence might have looked or sounded like, one thing is for sure: it would not have been subjected in the moment of its release to the sorts of stringently doctrinaire critiques that are surely laying in wait for it now circa 2016. The process of running movies through the ideological grinder and chewing over the remains is one of the more unappetizing by-products of our current pop-cultural climate, and somewhere, dozens of well-meaning writers are surely preparing think-pieces about whether or not “we” “need” this depiction of “heroic Christianity” (as a colleague put it to me after the screening) at a time when America (which, for the purposes of 90% of such pieces is assumed to be where “we” live) is buckling beneath the dictates of religious extremism. Leaving aside the fact that Silence is a wonderfully polyvalent critique of blind piety, Christian or otherwise, and that the heroism of its protagonist is ambiguous to say the least, the idea of holding a film set in the 17th century accountable to present-tense attitudes is as small-minded as it gets—the rich irony being that the themes Scorsese is getting at here do in fact very much apply to the here and now.
That’s because they are, for the lack of a better word, timeless. Silence is an attempt to wrestle with a series of big, enduring themes that transcend specific periods and locations even as it makes a conspicuous (but never ostentatious) display of historical realism and detail. The search by Jesuit Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe (Adam Driver) for a recently vanished member of their order in Japan has the outer shape of a thriller, and the suspense—for the characters as well as for the audience—lies in the question of whether the absent Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has been killed while doing missionary work, or perhaps worse, fully assimilated into the feudal society he had striven to indoctrinate to his Church. Gradually, though, the film shifts from this literal quest into an interior one, with Rodrigues forced to confront the arrogance and fear peeking out from underneath his deeply held faith. After initially being welcomed as saviors by a scattered network of Kakure Kirishitan converts cowering in fear of reprisals by the Tokugawa Shogunate, Rodrigues and Garrpe are discovered and eventually separated, interrogated and tortured by the local authorities, whose tactics are ingenious and insidious: if the priests refuse to renounce their beliefs, they’ll have to watch as their flock is culled before their eyes.
Scorsese focuses long stretches of Silence on Rodrigues’s resistance to both torture-by-proxy and his own physical trials, but it’s very difficult to decide whether or not his stubbornness is admirable or futile—which is exactly as it should be. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus’s grief at a Satanic vision of Earthly delight is imbued with nuance by Willem Dafoe’s acting, and yet the ultimate rejection is a fait accompli: the film is, after all, a Passion Play. In Kundun, the young protagonist struggles with his heavenly birthright but accepts it without contradiction. What Silence imagines—and makes deeply and profoundly uncomfortable—is the mindset of a true believer who is systematically forced into identification with a religious figurehead to the point that supplication is indistinguishable from delusions of grandeur; the collateral damage manifests in injury and death being dealt out to others.
The acts of violence in Silence are hard to take, not because it’s especially gory but because Scorsese has visualized it in a way that resensitizes us to agony and degradation. A sequence where three villagers are crucified and placed so that the ocean waves pound their bodies at regular intervals audaciously conflates pain and cleansing. This is not the icily aestheticized grotesquerie of Shutter Island with its neat rows of bullet-riddled, swan-diving Nazi officers: the images are exactly as stark and startling as they need to be. What’s even more important, though, is how scrupulously Silence avoids turning Rodrigues’s captors into simple villains, which is partially to do with the wonderful seriocomic acting of Issey Ogata as the Inquisitor Inoue and Tadanobu Asano as his avuncular interpreter, and more so a feature of the screenplay, which shapes the interrogation scenes rhetorically as well as dramatically and foregrounds a concept that’s downright dialectical: that Rodrigues’s desire to help remake Japan in his Church’s image is an irresistible force meeting the proverbial immovable object. “If nothing grows here, it is because you poisoned the soil,” says the padre, but he’s contradicted as much by the lush textures of Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography as his interlocutor’s insistence that he’s barking up the wrong tree.
There’s a certain poetry in having Ogata, who so brilliantly portrayed Emperor Hirohito in Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, play a man whose aim is the renunciation of divinity, and Inoue is one of the great cinematic devil’s advocates in recent memory precisely because the film doesn’t present his arguments as devilry. (His calmly rational demeanor and chosen fetish of making the “hidden Christians” step disrespectfully on an engraved image of Jesus evokes O’Brien in 1984: imagine a Buddhist foot stamping on a divine countenance—forever). The leap of faith that some viewers must take is that Scorsese and Cocks are using Christianity’s own history of forceful conversion and torture as a structuring absence rather than effacing it entirely, and also that a story about an imperial-power-in-ascendance trying to retain its cultural sovereignty in the wake of European incursion can be allowed to signify in several different directions at once.
To the former, it seems fair to think that the man who gave us the Catholic anguish of Mean Streets hasn’t fallen victim to theological boosterism, and that we’re meant to recognize that the means by which Rodrigues’s predecessors built their constituency have to some extent been turned against them. As to the latter, Silence seems far more scrupulous than other occidental-tourist narratives in giving the customs and culture of Japan their due without lapsing into exoticization, even as they’re finally incidental to the true nature of the narrative, which traverses an internal landscape where principles are more difficult to realign than bruised limbs or broken bones. No less than Travis Bickle, who turned his rage outwards, the increasingly emaciated and isolated (but still abidingly pacifist) Father Rodrigues appears to us as “God’s lonely man,” And, no less, than Taxi Driver, Silence considers the brutal, self-lacerating wages of absolute purity, and the myriad ways that even the hardest ideological armor can be pierced as deeply and viciously as flesh.
More than any of its mainstream-cinema-of-transgression competitors (from Bonnie and Clyde to A Clockwork Orange to Straw Dogs), Taxi Driver is a master class in pressurized build-up and cathartic release—a trick that Scorsese has duplicated many times since without necessarily equaling the original incarnation. For this critic, several of Scorsese’s late films have tended toward a heavy-spirited excess, and even if there’s an argument to be made that said excess is either satirical or else a work’s true subject—both things may be true of The Wolf of Wall Street, for instance—the almost fully repressed tension of Silence feels like a uniquely paradoxical breakthrough. The film is an epic exercise in restraint right down to its final shot, which is of hands devoutly clasped in prayer. Silence is grand and severe, but not cold or detached; the occasional and atypical distance of the camera from the action at times is a visual device rather than an indicator of indifference. Instead, Scorsese fixes his artistic gaze dead center on the things that have long preoccupied him, and doesn’t blink when they stare back.