Scorcese’s ‘Silence’ is a Difficult and Deeply Spiritual Masterpiece

By Dan Cava

January 15, 2017

Martin Scorsese is known best for his movies about violence. From the urban misfits of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull to the raucous gangsters of Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, Scorsese has been our most dependable and vivid chronicler of criminality in America. And yet careful students of his work know that Scorsese’s real obsession, the longest thread that connects all of his work, is religion. Guilt, punishment, sin, sacrifice, and redemption – the hallmarks of Scorsese’s complicated Catholicism flow through his films like a current.

His new project Silence tells the story of Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, as they search for their mentor Father Ferreira in seventeenth-century Japan. They fear that Ferreria may be lost in more ways than one. Japanese Christians of the time were plagued by brutal persecution at the hands of the government, and word has reached Europe that the missionary Ferreria may have apostatized – officially renounced the faith and trampled an image of Christ under foot. As the priests seek out Ferreira, they find themselves tested to the brink of physical and spiritual endurance.

Adam Driver as Francisco Garupand and Andrew Garfield as Sebastião Rodrigues. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Scorsese tried to make Silence many times over the last twenty-five years, but it seems providential that it would end up immediately following his cinematic ode to sin, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The two films present a yin and yang that, in their extremes, perfectly embody that strongest impulses of Scorsese’s post-Catholic sensibilities. Each is nearly three hours long, and each overwhelms the viewer with its theme: Wolf with its debauchery and Silence with its desolation. There are moments in each that might at first seem redundant (although never boring; it’s Scorsese), but upon reflection turn out to be essential to the movie’s aims. Where the former uncovers the moral emptiness in having everything, the latter looks for spiritual fullness in the face of nothingness.

Silence confronts us with that nothingness almost immediately in its foreboding opening moments. Through a shroud of mist (a recurring visual in the film), Father Ferreira watches helplessly as his captors slowly pour boiling water over agonized Christian peasants. The scene is mercifully short, and Scorsese’s restrained handling of other scenes like it make the movie bearable. But the overall effect is searing and somber. Silence is a difficult film.

And yet, as with many profound works of art, the difficulty is necessary to achieve the profundity. There are indeed many grace notes throughout, and the starkness and severity are accompanied by moments of sublimity and transcendence. Scorsese and his team have crafted a transporting and gorgeous film. His cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Wolf of Wall Street so aggressively, finds beautiful vistas and colorful stillness in the varied Japanese landscapes. The sound design is immersive and nature-driven, and master editor Thelma Schoonmaker creates an unhurried but steady rhythm to the movie’s 161 minute running time. The movie’s artistic grasp matches it philosophical reach.

Liam Neeson as Father Cristóvão Ferreira. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As the movie’s guide, Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues is the center of the movie. Scorsese often parks the camera near to him so that we see Japan from his perspective. Garfield is magnificent in a very taxing role, as is Adam Driver as Rodrigues’ travel companion Garupe and Liam Neeson in the small but critical role of Ferreira. One can learn about the trio’s dedicated preparation for their characters from various talk shows and interviews, and both the process and the results are impressive.

But it’s the Japanese faces and performances in Silence that I remember most. Yôsuke Kubozuka stars as Kichijiro, a Judas-like figure who earns both our scorn and our sympathy. Tadanobu Asano and Issei Ogata play the Interpreter and the Inquisitor, respectively; and while they antagonize the Jesuits cruelly, they carry a humanity and intellect that scrambles simple judgements of their motivations. Among the beleaguered Christian peasants, Mikichi and Ichizo (Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Yoshi Oida) emanate dignity, compassion, and conviction. Despite their status in Japan, none of these actors’ names and faces will be familiar to American eyes, but given the film’s setting and themes, I suspect, that is kind of the point. Their performances shoot straight to our hearts, precisely where Silence is aiming.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

One of my favorite albums from 2016 was Switchfoot’s Where The Light Shines Through. Certainly anyone familiar with Jon Foreman’s lyrics knows that he and his band are unlike film director Martin Scorsese in many ways, but the one area of overlap between the two artists is an insistent, almost obsessive fixation on finding God in a fallen world.

Where is God out in the darkness?
Cause the voices in my head ain’t talking honest
They’re saying maybe you made us then forgot us
But that ain’t you.

Foreman expresses here an idea that runs through much of Scorsese’s work: that one looks hardest for God in the places where God cannot be seen. With Silence, Scorsese does what the great religious storytellers have done before him – he invites us to ask, to seek, and to knock. As we follow Father Rodrigues’ search, we find ourselves following Scorsese’s search and, inescapably, our own.

Where entertainment beckons us to leave our cares behind, art often asks us to confront them. With its brutality and its beauty, its overt religiosity and its relentless physicality, its grueling quest and its grueling questions, Silence is spiritual filmmaking at its highest level and a new masterpiece from one of cinema’s greatest believers.

Star rating: 5 out of 5.

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