Review: For good or ill, Silence speaks with Scorsese’s voice
The religion of Japan is a syncretic blend of Buddhism, Shinto, and the practical life-philosophy of Confucianism. The varieties of Christianity attract only a tiny following on the island country, but travelers in Japan – especially in the southwest – can find a variety of memorials to people who, centuries ago, died for their actual or supposed belief in the god of the Europeans. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film Silence is, explicitly, a cinematic memorial to the Japanese Christians and European priests who faced marginalization and deadly persecution as the country put up barriers to Western influence in the 1600s AD.
Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) was a Jesuit in Japan before the crackdown on Christians began in earnest, but when it did and he and his flock faced torture and crucifixion in a kind of Buddhist/statist inquisition, he sent word to Portugal indicating he would no longer serve the Church. Refusing to believe that their favorite elder priest has fallen into apostasy, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) volunteer to sneak into Japan and make contact with Ferreira. Their guide is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a drunken sailor and possible ex-Christian they hire in a Chinese port. Apart from a few brief exchanges, all Portuguese, Japanese, and other incidental characters communicate in English for the benefit of the audience — a choice conveniently paralleled by the Jesuit policy, on limited display here, of adapting to the vernacular of their target communities.
In Heart of Darkness fashion, the Kurtz figure, Ferreira, is withheld for a long while as Rodrigues and Garupe become mired in and destabilized by their isolated and foreign environment. The enigmatic Kichijiro leads them to two villages of underground Christians, but the Christians’ relief at having priests to lead them is tempered by the reality that the Europeans cannot remain hidden. The very presence of Rodrigues and Garupe bring mortal danger to Japan’s surviving faithful, and the film’s tension mostly derives from the question of whether it is better to become a martyr or to preserve a living, secret faith by publicly disavowing it. For 17th century Catholics, the separation of faith from its sacraments and rituals was no easy matter, and the Christian characters of Silence illustrate the agony of that disentanglement.
Filmed in Taiwan but successfully emulating the near-tropical overgrowth, monsoons, and dynamic geology of southwestern Japan, Silence’s visuals betray Scorsese’s artistic debt to his old colleague and collaborator Akira Kurosawa. Stationary tableaus of steam, rain, and fog recall the Japanese director’s fondness for filming in the elements. Silence could be read as a Western companion to Kurosawa’s literary adaptation Ran, minus the battles, and with Catholicism rather than Buddhism as the salvational doctrine of choice. Both films piously decry the bloody jealousies of those who wielded power in premodern Japan. Of course, like the Kurosawa film, the Scorsese film is bloody, and Silence serves up many striking, creative images of crucifixions and beheadings.
There is an increasing irony to the film’s title that is probably unintended. In moments where silence might have been more powerful artistically and more interesting philosophically, Scorsese opts for voice-overs. Often the voice belongs to Rodrigues, other times to Ferreira or Ferreira-as-God, and in one extended sequence to a detached observer, a Dutch trader. Unfortunately, these voice-overs do not add clarity or complexity; they interrupt visual reveries and nip any buds of ambiguity that might have grown. Equally regrettable are the moments in which an allusion is overtly articulated. For example, when discussing the pieces of silver Japanese authorities pay informers, a character refers to the money Judas was paid for betraying Jesus. To literate observers the point is abundantly clear without such obvious underlining. The script’s compulsion to connect every dot and express every thought does not befit a mature work from an experienced visual storyteller.
The fact that Silence is expressly dedicated to the Christians of Tokugawa-period Japan may partly justify the apologistic, hagiographic way Scorsese adapts Shusaku Endo’s novel. For those who are not part of the choir, though, the appeal of Scorsese’s preaching may be limited to an appreciation of its form.
Silence vs. The Last Temptation of Christ
The title of Silence refers to the one-way nature of verbal communication between Jesuit priests and God, but a third of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, does not have the luxury of silence in Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ; he is its central character. Both that film and Silence engage with the idea that the betrayer Judas may have been Jesus’s holiest and most committed apostle, but the literal presence of Biblical characters in Temptation is better suited to Scorsese’s often unsubtle approach. (Scorsese’s screenwriting collaborator Jay Cocks worked on both films.) The Last Temptation of Christ is and should remain ahead of Silence in the global rankings.
The Last Temptation of Christ stats:
- Global ranking: 751
- 3462 users have ranked it 43,760 times
- Wins 42% of its matchups
- 5 users have it at #1
- 88 users have it in their top 20
Silence vs. Silence (1971)
The original Silence, titled Chinmoku in Japanese, is a quieter and more personal adaptation from director Masahiro Shinoda, though it also features impressive vistas and a tragic performance from its Rodrigues, David Lampson. Scorsese’s Silence will eclipse the earlier on Flickchart, partly because it is new and from a well-loved director, but also because of the high-profile and emotional performances from Garfield, Neeson, and Driver.
Silence (1971) stats:
- Global ranking: 14,946
- 12 users have ranked it 286 times
- Wins 41% of its matchups
- 0 users have it at #1
- 2 users have it in their top 20