The first movie I watched in 2017 was absolutely the right way to start off 2017. After the lackluster cinematic year that we had last year, I was determined to spend the time mining for a nugget of celluloid gold, rather than waste my time indulging in the mediocrity the “new” January movies offer. That’s why I think January is best spent catching up on the old releases that you missed from December. All those movies that you saw appear at the Golden Globes and went, “Huh? Never heard of that. That looked very beard… I, I mean weird. Good-weird…. I wanted to see it!” Well those movies are still out there and, in some ways, are the best bet for your eyeballs for the rest of the month. That’s why I treated myself to one of my most-anticipated films from last year, Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
Scorsese’s a good Catholic boy from the mean streets of New York and I’m not a Catholic guy, but I grew up as an ethnic Catholic – coming from my mother’s side of the family which has been deeply rooted in the faith for centuries. I grew up in the vanilla streets of the midwest America. My grandparents attend mass every week (though they go Saturday nights now because it is less crowded) and have exposed me to a lot of Catholic behaviors and ideological perspectives which give me a lot of respect for Scorsese’s mission. One thing I understand about Catholics is their deep respect for tradition and if Scorsese has done anything, he has continued a tradition of venerating his faith by recognizing the struggle that certain members of the faith used to go through. He’s definitely a master filmmaker and his faith shows in his work, but usually its presented bit more subtly than it is here. It’s been a long time since the mobster maestro released anything this religious and I’d figure it would garner some controversy considering the subject matter.Which means, for me, yay! I’m all about the anticipation and I was more than ready for a movie that people are just now giving the attention it deserves.
Though it lacked publicity, if you heard anything about Silence in the media, it was about how it took between two and three decades to make and was truly a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s. Length of time doesn’t always necessitate quality, but it certainly proves that the filmmaker had a long time to think about what they were making. I mean, look at Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). I personally didn’t like the film or believe it was deserving of the accolades it received, but respected it as the Richard Linklater’s ‘baby’ following a twelve year labor of love. Now, infuse that passion with the craftsmanship, consistency and skill of a veteran filmmaker like Martin Scorsese and hinge the story around the hefty moral conversation regarding religion, belief and guilt. It seems like a lot for a lot of people, which is probably why it was so difficult to make and why it didn’t get the press circuit I expected it to. But as with many pieces of art, the more one puts into it, the more one might be able to get out of it.
Silence follows two Jesuit priests, who, concerned about the fate of their mentor (a very on-his-game Liam Neeson), set out on a journey to Japan to put to rest rumors of apostasy. The story really anchors around Father Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield, who has moved on from Spider-Man in the best way possible), who enters Japan full of encouragement about the campaign, accompanied by his fellow priest, Garupe (Adam Driver). Once they arrive onshore, they are greeted by a number of Japanese Christians who are invigorated by the arrival of an actual priest. It’s heartwarming for the priests to see Christians coming together like this, but they also recognize the anachronistic nature of their gatherings. The priests feel as though they’re living in pre-Constantine Rome when they have to hold midnight mass in whispered tongues to a group of people who face harsh persecution should their nocturnal activities ever be discovered. This part is unsettling to the padres, who have spent much of their existence up until this point in a very Catholic country during a very Catholic time, so this comes as a mere after-effect of their culture shock.
Following advice given to them by the man who led them to Japan, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), Father Rodrigues sets out on his own journey to a nearby town to ascertain more information regarding the whereabouts of their mentor, Father Ferrera. Kichijiro causes a lot of strife for our young optimist Rodrigues. Consistently, he wishes to go through confession and other ceremonies to legitimize his faith and turns to Rodrigues in order to help him through that process. Being a good Christian, Rodrigues obliges, but finds himself repeating the same task again and again after Kichijiro’s fragile faith is put to the test every time government officials stroll through town. The first big challenge to the priest’s mission comes when the villagers are asked to desecrate the image of Christ in order to prove their absence of faith. Most of these god-fearing people attest to their faith, despite the consequences of doing so. One notable exception is Kichijiro, who publicly denies his faith again and again, much to the disdain of Rodrigues. It feels a little bit like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs promises he won’t trick them again and then proceeds to do it anyways. It feels insincere. It’s frustrating for Rodrigues, who sees this man deny God to save his life and then immediately beg for forgiveness. But alas, our boy Andrew Garfield is an eternal beacon of optimism.
It’s interesting to watch Rodrigues deal with this dilemma. On the one hand, he understands why people deny their faith and desecrate the image of Christ: they want to live! In the film, we even hear Rodrigues wish that some would apostatize to end their suffering. After all, Christianity in Japan at that time was a lot different than Christianity in Portugal and for Rodrigues, it meant he hadn’t seen peoples faith tested at such a price. On the other hand, he has pledged his life to the faith and believed that were it his head on the line, he would die knowing he did the right thing. So Rodrigues and the audience are left to grapple with the question: Can a man betray the faith time and time again and be forgiven? He does seem to feel guilty after all. But compared to the many Christians who die for their faith, he looks like a sin-ridden heathen. And does his openness about his faith reflect his beliefs? This is an idea that Scorsese toys with throughout the entire movie, the idea that you can be a good Christian, but for the purposes of self-preservation, are allowed to remain silent about your beliefs.
But silence comes with costs. Though it might be the external denial of God, it’s the internal denial of self. For many, religion is a part of identity and to deny ones beliefs might contradict who you are inside. Back in pre-enlightenment era Europe, religiousness was a fairly standard part of society. Nowadays, that seems to have faded a bit. There are still lots of religious people around the world, but church-going and ‘traditional’ values have seemed to falter in recent years. It’s difficult to maintain when hedonism permeates every layer of media that’s “in” these days. It’s not just TV, but books, Snapchat, and Instagram. Cinema too has always been an old friend of hedonism, projecting the dark thoughts of humankind from its very inception. But cinema has also used sex, addiction and violence to criticize sex, addiction and violence. The nature of conversation requires the acknowledgement of a subject and therefore, in order to have any discourse on the darker parts of mankind, they must be displayed. No one has captured that better than Martin Scorsese.
Violence, profanity, sexuality and many of life’s other vices are found sprinkled liberally across Martin Scorsese’s career. The guy is a damn cinematic genius who has managed to use each of these subjects to make a greater criticism about human nature. Yet, the man is a strong Catholic, with deeply rooted faith. Had he been making films fifty years ago, the Catholic legion of decency would be all over his work in an instant (and they actually still were), which is weird to think about today because he showed Silence to a special audience of Jesuits in Rome just a few months ago. Imagine if he showed them The Wolf of Wall Street! I don’t know if even the strongest-willed souls could resist the charming phenomenon that is Margot Robbie…especially in that film (insert body shiver here)… The point is that, while Silence is a fantastic story of Jesuits in the face of the harshest persecution, Scorsese’s career is a bit more ribald and rough on the ears. He couldn’t be the legendary filmmaker that he is today without making the movies the way they are. I saw Mean Streets on TV once and they dubbed all of the curse words out, which left you with a hilarious monday-to-friday clusterchuck. You can’t help but wonder whether the less-appropriate material haunts the good Catholic.
Some celebrities are very open about their faith and manage to obnoxiously profit off of it with every marketing opportunity presented to them. The vast majority of them, however, seem to keep quiet about their beliefs, or find an artistic way to infuse their beliefs into their work without shoving them down your throat. Scorsese falls into the latter category, save for a few notable pictures that he has made. Just because a guy grew up in a religious background doesn’t mean we expect them to make that a tenant of their work. I mean, one could only imagine the endless number of scientology movies some people would make. Plenty of filmmakers grow up with some kind of faith and few let it translate so prominently in their work. The subject of religion weighed heavily enough on Scorsese in 1988 when he made The Last Temptation of Christ and seems to have carried through today when he made Silence. Silence seems to have garnered a lot less controversy than The Last Temptation of Christ, but is not without its fair share of dissenters, including one vexed Catholic who refers to Scorsese as a ‘cradle Catholic’ and believes the film promotes faithlessness. I think the film does just the opposite. Part of Martin Scorsese’s journey through faith has been to ask questions. He asked questions about human nature with Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and he asks questions of faith with, well, many movies – but especially Silence. These films provide a platform for conversation about these difficult subjects and really great filmmakers can tackle these issues onscreen, allowing conversation to swell afterwards. If Scorsese wasn’t a man of faith, why would he spend his time obsessing about a book which details the important struggles of the missionaries? He has said how, after reading Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, he wasn’t going to let the book go anytime soon. After almost three decades, it finally was made. Thankfully, it has his signature all over it.
In some ways, Scorsese is like Kichijiro, a man who believes, but struggles to pronounce his faith when it counts. That amounts to a lot of, what my granparent’s might call, Catholic guilt. I had always heard that Catholic guilt was that thing you felt when you missed mass so many weeks in a row or forgot to genuflect. For many though, it seems to be a natural difficulty in articulating one’s faith. But there’s an easy cure to Catholic guilt and it involves articulating one’s beliefs, which he actually has done his whole career. Just as he has sprinkled human vices throughout his films, Catholicism has also seen a presence in some of his movies. Think about Mean Streets and Raging Bull. I mean the opening line in Mean Streets talks about the struggle to articulate faith in the world of today. They aren’t movies about religion, but recognize a piece of the director’s identity, as every film does in one way or another. Silence is the voice which breaks Martin Scorsese’s silence on his faith and recognizes the difficulty in living a true and just life as a Catholic.
And when the film winds down to its conclusion, we’re introduced to my personal favorite character, Father Ferrera. Though he appears for only a hot second in the movie, man does he make a statement. I know people moaned and complained when Viola Davis was nominated for Doubt, even though she was only in like ten minutes of the movie, but I really think Liam Neeson didn’t waste a minute on screen playing the mentor priest. I mean, damn man, why do you waste your time doing movies like…well… a lot of the last decade? You’re good man, you don’t need to be shootin’ guns and playing animated toys (as much as I love it). While I won’t go into to much detail about the nature of his character, I will say that when Rodrigues finds him, dressed in traditional Buddhist garb, calmly telling him that he has made a home in Japan, Rodrigues is distraught to the point of numbness.
Everything he had hoped for and prayed for, the entirety of this journey culminated in this moment which shakes the foundation of Rodrigues’ belief system. It’s at that point where the audience wonders… where are they to go next? Is Rodrigues, the vehicle for our audience and strong ambassador for everything holy about to crumble as his platform does beneath him? It certainly questions the nature of the faith at that moment and makes all religious people in the audience (myself included) a little uneasy. It’s hard to come that far and not have the answer you’re looking for. It makes Rodrigues think that he spent every night praying to silence. But the challenge of faith is vested in silence, in not receiving an answer. It’s natural to have that skepticism when there’s no answer on the other side, as skepticism is a trial of faith. But just as with any trial in life, what doesn’t defeat you makes you stronger. I do think Silence challenges many of the tenants of classic Christian thought, but only in order to emphasize the strength of faith. Was silence in response to their heavenly pleas what defeated them or was it really the only way for them to preserve their faith for now and into the future?
Martin Scorsese has used Silence to break his silence and in the process has provided ample thought for audiences of every religious background. In a world where the pace of change seems to be outrunning the speed of light, a movie like this brings a special peace. It stands out amongst Scorsese’s oeuvre as a personal reflection on humankind’s relationship to belief. In creating this movie and making this statement on the nature of faith, Scorsese has said so much without having to say anything at all. And after this, I think he’s validated the adult nature of his previous works without having to go to confession. After all, if you don’t make up for your sins in church, you do it on the screen.