When it comes to American cinema there’s no doubt that Martin Scorsese looms pretty large. He’s created some of the best films of all time, and he’s one of the most talented filmmakers who has ever lived. He speaks the language of cinema fluently, and has been responsible for some of my favorite films ever. However, while Scorsese is an undeniable master at making films about crime, there’s one topic of his that I’ve actually never seen. Scorsese is fascinated with faith, particularly Catholicism, and aside from when it comes up in his crime films, I’m pretty unfamiliar with that side of his work. I’ve never seen Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun, his more spiritual films, unless you count Hugo, which I kind of do. I really need to rectify that oversight, but for now I’m more or less unfamiliar with Scorsese’s take on faith and spirituality. And that’s the head-space that I was in when I went to check out his latest film, his long gestating adaptation of the historical fiction novel, Silence. This was a passion project for Scorsese, and a film that he’s been trying to get off the ground for quite some time now. And I honestly have no idea how I feel about it.
The film is set in the early 1600’s, and follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, who have learned that their mentor, Father Ferreira, is missing in Japan, and presumed dead. That, or he’s denounced Jesus and now lives as a Japanese citizen. And the two priests cannot abide their mentor being slandered like this, so they insist that they go to Japan to find him, and help proselytize the Japanese. So the two priests head to Japan, find an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro who they convince to guide them to Nagasaki where Ferreira was last seen, and get to work trying to help the Christians of Japan. Apparently the government of Japan has rejected Christianity, and have been torturing the Jesuits and weeding out any believers in the religion. So the two priests make it to Japan, and start helping out some small villages of Christians, hearing their confessions and absolving them. However they have to be careful to keep hidden, in case members of the Inquisition stumble upon them and kill them for preaching Christianity. However, things don’t work out that well, and some samurai who work with the Inquisitor show up, and capture some of the villagers, who are then killed. This spurs the two priests into action, and they decide to split up and try to find Ferreira. Which doesn’t work out well.
We then only follow Rodrigues, who wanders the countryside of Japan, looking for Ferreira, before he runs into Kichijiro again, who says that he’s going to help him. Unfortunately he instead sells him out to the Inquisitor, who captures Rodrigues and brings him to a prison in Nagasaki for Christians. Rodrigues is given a translator, since the Japanese have learned their language but the priest hasn’t learned theirs, and they start tormenting Rodrigues. They explain that Christianity doesn’t belong in Japan, and that they don’t want it there. They tell Rodrigues that they’re going to start torturing the Japanese Christians that they’ve captured, unless he denounces Jesus. And that’s kind of the rest of the movie. We see them kill Father Garupe, but for the most part the bulk of the film is Father Rodrigues being kept in a cell, being told that if he simply steps on an engraved image of Jesus, they’ll let all of these Christians go. But he won’t do it. His faith is too strong, I suppose. So Rodrigues just watches people getting killed, over and over, until they finally bring in the big guns and bring Father Ferreira to him. Ferreira, it turns out, actually has denounced Jesus, and has been living in Japan, teaching astronomy and writing about how Christianity is a lie. He tries to explain to Rodrigues that it doesnt matter, that the Japanese don’t need Christianity, and that the life of these innocent people is more important that Rodrigues’ pride. But that lesson takes quite some time to sink in, and the killing continues. But, in the end, Rodrigues gives up, apostatizes, and becomes a citizen of Japan where he spends the rest of his life working with Ferreira helping the Japanese government find Christian artifacts and get rid of them.
I really am not sure how I feel about this film. I left the theater last night, having no idea, thought about it the whole drive home, then the rest of the evening, and has spent a good portion of today thinking about it, and I’m still kind of drawing a blank. This film is quite unlike anything I’ve seen from Scorsese before, but it’s an undeniably beautiful film. The acting is top-notch, the cinematography is beautiful, the score is haunting, and it’s just an exceedingly well-crafted film. I’ve seen it get a lot of accolades, and I do believe that it deserves them. It’s a very beautiful film that has created a lot to think about, which is one of the goals of cinema. I certainly respect this film. But I’m not sure if I liked it. Primarily because I’m really not sure what the message of the film was.
In general, I find the idea of prostelyzation pretty despicable. The idea of members of a religion going to a new country, and telling those citizens that they’re wrong and need to follow a new religion, otherwise they’ll live in an eternity of pain and torment is pretty monstrous. It’s religious imperialism, and it bothers me to no extent. So making a film where the protagonists are Jesuits who are traveling to Japan and telling the Japanese that they live like animals and need to embrace “the Truth” is going to be a hard sell for me. But the thing that I found odd about this movie was that the Jesuits didn’t come off as likable, but neither did the Japanese. For a while I thought that the interpreter was going to be a relateable character, since he was telling Rodrigues all about how Japan is happy with Buddhism, and that they prefer religions where their holy figure is someone they aspire to be, not to be afraid of. But then that guy starts helping torture Christians, so I guess that guy isn’t likable. By the end of the film I believe that the message it was imparting was that it’s fine to have faith, but you don’t have to be obsessed with things like converting others or worshiping images, you just need to keep in it your heart. Which is a pretty decent message. But at the same time, we also saw Rodrigues allow a whole bunch of people to get killed because of his own pride. This was a very complex film, and gave me a lot to think about. Because while watching this movie I was overcome with an intense feeling of disgust about the idea of Jesuits coming and telling people that their way of life is wrong, and that they need to change to conform to Christianity. But then I started to think about how I think people should largely abandon organized religion and accept science and fact, which is kind of the same thing. And I’m not sure what to do with this realization. I certainly respected this film quite a bit, and it’s given me a lot to think about, but I don’t think I really personally cared for it. I don’t think I’ll ever see Silence again, and I’m okay with that, but it’s given me some real topics for reflection, and has spurred me on to finish off Scorsese’s filmography and check out this other side to him, so I can’t deny that it’s made an impact on me.
Silence was written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, directed by Martin Scorsese, and released by Paramount Pictures, 2016.