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The Current Debate: An Irreducible "Silence"

Weighing belief and doubt in Martin Scorsese’s new film.
The most surprising feature of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a 161-minute religious picture about 17th-century Jesuit priests in Japan, is that it exists at all; the second most surprising feature may be its critical reception, much of which seems to approach the film at a kind of respectful distance. The tentativeness of reviews seems to reflect the ambiguity of the film’s religious and moral conclusions, as Alissa Wilkinson writes at Vox:
It’s been remarkable to discover that Silence is a challenging film for many critics and early viewers, including those who aren’t interested in religion at all, or who don’t identify with a particular faith. The genius of Endō’s story and Scorsese’s adaptation is that it won’t characterize anyone as a saint, nor will it either fully condone or reject the colonialist impulses, the religious oppression, the apostasy, or the faltering faith of its characters. There is space within the story for every broken attempt to fix the world. Endō’s answer still lies in Christ, but his perception of Christ is radically different from what most people are familiar with — and even those who don’t identify with Christianity will find the film unnerving and haunting.
At The Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri argues that this universality results in part from Andrew Garfield’s priest Rodrigues becoming, by his failures, a kind of religious everyman, in contrast to Jesus and the Dalai Lama in Scorsese’s earlier religious films, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun:
Scorsese is a Catholic, and he’s been obsessed with Catholic imagery his whole life. But he also exhibits a more universal understanding of faith. Silence takes the trajectories of Jesus and the Dalai Lama, who must learn to accept their immense, sacred responsibilities, and reverses them in the story of Rodrigues, the priest who embarks on a holy mission and is ultimately stripped of everything he values. Rodrigues will not die a martyr. He will not become a saint. His sacrifice will not be written about in the annals of his faith; if anything, he will be a shameful footnote. But he will, finally, achieve true compassion for another man, the two of them united in their weakness. And in this, who’s to say that he has not found the divine?
Like many of Scorsese’s protagonists before him, Rodrigues ends up “cast out to dwell East of Eden,” as Nick Pinkerton puts it in his Film Comment interview with Scorsese, bolstering this reading of the character as a kind of everyman. But in other respects, Silence seems to mute the director’s trademarks, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out at The A.V. Club:
Scorsese’s signature overhead shots become the eye of God, as felt by this self-absorbed would-be saint whenever he senses purpose; the camera watches from above as he descends the staircase of a Macau cathedral, crosses the East China Sea, or tells the Kirishtan peasants who have taken him in that he must leave for another village. But more often than not, it is constrained by tight quarters or overwhelmed by the scale of landscapes. Scorsese has long taken to using the freely moving Steadicam to suggest swaggering authority—think of the famous Copacabana and “Then there was…” sequences in Goodfellas or any of those long detours across casino floors, count rooms, or bookie joints in Casino. In Silence, he and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto largely avoid powerful camera movements, in keeping with the powerlessness of their central character.
Not everyone is as willing to forgive the seeming absence of momentum. Manohla Dargis dissents at The New York Times:
“Silence” argues against orthodoxy, but its messenger is too pallid. This is less the fault of Mr. Garfield than of Mr. Scorsese’s conception of Rodrigues as the story’s fulcrum instead of its void. Mr. Scorsese fills the film with haunting tableaus and performances — including from Tadanobu Asano, as the Interpreter — that tug from the edges, pulling attention away from its center. In the end, nothing that Rodrigues says resonates as deeply as Inoue’s terrifying, teasing whine, which conveys the larger cultural and political stakes; nothing imparts the mystery of creation as potently as the flicker of a darting emerald lizard or an eerie parade of cats prowling through a spookily deserted village.
I agree with her about Garfield; his performance seems at times somewhat inadequate to the sweep of the film. But I think it’s possible nonetheless to understand clearly the questions Scorsese intends to raise about “the mystery of creation,” which Justin Chang describes at The Los Angeles Times:
The possible meanings of Endō’s title are infinite, and hardly limited to the historical moment that so gripped his imagination. Is God’s silence a test, or an admission of His nonexistence? What about the problem of our own silence, especially when it makes us complicit in someone else’s suffering? The dissonant closing scenes advance a still more provocative inquiry: Could silence, far from being an act of cowardice, in fact constitute the truest, most necessary expression of faith?
Stephanie Zacharek has a similar take at Time:
Garfield’s dutiful, contemplative Rodrigues faces the most grueling trial of all. But to tell you whether he succeeds or fails would give the whole game away. Besides, the essence of Silence has nothing to do with failure or success. The nature of belief is far too variegated for that. Scorsese has wanted to make a movie out of Endo’s novel since he first read it, in 1989. In the introduction to a recently published edition of the book, he writes, “On the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other.” To that end, Silence makes no clear value judgment between belief and doubt. It’s a movie in the shape of a question mark, which may be the truest sign of the cross.
In her review of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, in 1973, Pauline Kael remarked that the careless explosions of the character Johnny Boy present a foil to the protagonist Charlie’s attempts to keep the lid on everything; Johnny Boy is an externalization of Charlie’s internal tensions, which Kael thought might be Scorsese’s own. Decades later, it seems that Scorsese hasn’t lost the taste for this kind of drama: a similar dynamic might be ascribed to the conflict between Garfield’s priest and Issei Ogata’s inquisitor in Silence. But if the characters in Mean Streets act like cannons pointed directly at one another, Scorsese frames the tension in Silence more subtly, as two sides of the same necessary coin. This is perhaps why Silence seems so difficult to compass: it’s both questioning and conclusive. As Scorsese puts it, “One nourishes the other.”
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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