She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.
The mist uncovers Japanese soldiers as well as the grim sight of severed heads by the side of the hot springs where Catholic priests are being tortured. A priest kneels down in horror, almost catatonic, unable to bring himself to believe in the evilness of these men, the men of the Inquisitor. Why are these priests, who came to this “swamp of Japan” to spread the Word of the Lord, suffering so immensely on the hands of these soldiers?
To the modern, secular audience, the theme of Silence (2016) is of great irony: the all-powerful Catholic Church, the institution that spread terror across Europe for 700 years with her bonfires and witch hunts and enforcing an almost maddening outlook at faith and personal behavior, comes to an unconquerable land where the mandarins are as blood-thirsty as the Inquisitors of Spain. So there you have it. According to this modus mentis, Silence is a film that is, primarily, ironically tragic—but a well-deserved irony. The spell turned against the sorcerer, so to speak.
This way to look at Silence is, of course, plainly wrong and I doubt if either director Martin Scorsese or Shusaku Endo, the author whose book was adapted into the film, ever entertained such idea. Not only because part of such an interpretation comes from that old anti-Catholic folktale (in part started by Lutherans and Calvinists alike) that the Church was the big evil that set European scientific and cultural development back during the whole Middle Ages, but also because that to root for the suffering of men is heartless.1 Endo’s novel—and Scorsese’s picture—is not about the merely physical experience of Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver), the protagonists of Scorsese’s new picture. It is about the inability of bringing oneself to understanding the reality that surrounds us everywhere, an inability shared by Martin Scorsese as well, as I’ll try to point out later in this essay. The physical—that is, the matter—is of less interest to Endo’s philosophy—and to the Church, in general—than the spiritual tensions that, when registered by one’s cognitive reader, provoke either pain or joy. If we are to believe that there is anything ironic at its core, the irony in Silence is that Fr. Rodrigues is a sort of mirror of Martin Scorsese, unable (or unwilling) to register in his heart anything beyond his own doubts and cannot experience anything beyond his physical discomfort (which, in Scorsese’s experience, is the unwillingness to think beyond mere formal—i.e., physical—aspects). He cannot comprehend even how the Japanese “Kirishtans”—native Japanese Christians—spent years without a priest to say Mass and hear confessions (that is, Fr. Rodrigues cannot understand how his own Christian faith works), let alone how they can risk their lives to hide them. However, in the picture, Scorsese (and his co-screenwriter, Jay Cocks) had the sensibility—but I’m tempted to believe that it is something that gone unnoticed under their radars—to discretely paint Fr. Rodrigues as a kind of selfish man. “We offer Mass in the dead of the night,” he says, “just as they did in the Catacombs.” Now Fr. Rodrigues believes he is just like the first Roman Christians more or less in the same manner that Scorsese believes he is the heir of the old cinema produced by Michael Powell, Rossellini and Vincente Minnelli. But then, in the next instant, he says that he is not so sure if God has heard his prayers at all. “I prayed but I’m lost.” So Scorsese is also lost in his approach to issues that go beyond formal aspects.
But first I will restrict myself to issues that are closer to my heart than Scorsese’s visual mannerisms. I want, for the moment, to talk about the spiritual quests and clashes that are the motor of the film’s plot, and how about faith is portrayed in truly spiritual—and Catholic, for that matter—pictures, including one directed 29 years ago by Mr. Scorsese.
Maybe it is this sensation of loss, brought by this discreet egotism that leads Fr. Rodrigues to think that God is silent. But is God so? How is God silent? And one more question: If God is silent indeed, was He always silent?
ISSUES WITH CATHOLIC FILMMAKING
By now, critics and reviewers have written a lot about how Silence has many things common with other pictures by Martin Scorsese. At first glance, I tend to agree with this consensus. When I talk about the preponderance of spiritual pain over the physical pain I am immediately reminded of Harvey Keitel’s voice-over about pain at the beginning of Mean Streets (1973). “All is bullshit except the pain—the pain of Hell. The burn of a lighted match increased a million times,” he muses as he burns the tip of his fingers in a candle fire. Of course, I agree that there has been a huge effort on Scorsese’s part to insert in his picture this deeply Catholic theme of the mind–body duality (or better yet, spirit–body duality) between heavenly happiness versus secular pleasures. As his films progress and the music gets louder and the drugs grow stronger, starting in the late 80s, whatever possibility of spiritual peace has long left the building. Invariably (see the examples of Goodfellas’s Henry Hill, Casino’s “Ace” Rothstein and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle) all his characters leave his pictures sore if not resentful. Hearing Henry Hill’s final remarks in Goodfellas (1990), can one can disagree? “I’m the average nobody. I’ll get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
To Scorsese’s characters—especially the male characters—earthly pleasures are much, much more important than the divine ones, no matter that a lack of divine fulfillment makes them feel guilty.2 More often than not, his films end with the characters, despite all their sins and evildoing, left with a quantum of solace. Henry Hill ends, despite his complaints, in the witness protection program living in a nice suburban home; “Ace” Rothstein lives in a big house and still can make good bets; Jake La Motta, in Raging Bull (1980), finds mild success as an entertainer and club owner; and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) still makes money on other people’s hope.
We apparently cannot say the same about Scorsese’s two out-and-out Catholic films: this one and The Last Temptation of Christ. I say apparently because there are crucial differences—mainly of spiritual order—between the former and the latter. But these differences are so subtle, so under the surface, that only with very attentive eyes we can spot them, as it happens, I suppose, with so many things in life. But, as I hope to convince you, they are essential and make all the difference. They are the very mark that differentiates Silence from being a good picture and a bad picture.
We cannot apparently say the same—that the characters find some consolation—about Silence and The Last Temptation of Christ. I have lately seen many people who identify themselves as atheists championing Silence for portraying a failed evangelizing mission. Of course, one can like or dislike a film for whatever reasons he or she pleases; I only find outright stupid to like or dislike a film for ideological reasons. Mainly, moralists and ideologues do that—and that’s the very reason why the Hays Code was born. Fiction inhabits a different land, a land of magic but also a land of reality, where reality is a little less than magic and magic a little more than reality; it is the land where dreams, moral objections and messages inhabit one and the same spot, and they converge in stories about our place as human beings and about the destiny of mankind. Fiction—or good fiction, I reckon—is the place of the “moral imagination,” as Sir Edmund Burke would say. And we cannot pin imagination with an ideological label. To try to do that is to diminish the value of fiction, which is to expand our sense of humanity and the frontiers of our knowledge about the possibilities of human life. Imagine, for example, if we judged a film like Grapes of Wrath by ideological guidelines: right-wingers would drop the film on the basis that it portrays bankers as evil creatures and the protagonists are “saved” (sort of) by a government organ. Liberals would not like the film for a myriad of factors—either because the hardships of migrant life are toned down, or because there still is a kindle of the imperialistic American dream burning inside the characters, et cetera. Do that and soon enough we will forget the true meaning of films and general art: to speak to the whole mankind across borders and personal preferences. Even Darryl F. Zanuck was onto something when he said that a film should be liked in the same way either in Kansas City or in Singapore. There are few things in life that cannot be labeled: imagination is one of those and it is our duty to conserve it like that.
Besides, the hype based on the “Christianity failing” theme is misguided and resembles a lot the debacles that surrounded the release of Last Temptation. The US Catholic Church condemned that picture as “morally offensive” and the Greek Orthodox Church, back when the novel was released, excommunicated its author Nikos Kazantzakis. Meanwhile, people on the “liberal” side of the political spectrum welcomed the film as a part of the bulldozer that would destruct our old moralizing cornerstones (in this case, the Christian faith).
That reaction to The Last Temptation—let’s talk about it first—is misguided. As with Silence, it intends to be a Catholic film, through and through, and it is my sincere belief that instead of being a demoralizing, anti-Christian picture, it actually, if I am allowed to use a more “pious” lexicon, “praises the Lord.”
But what does it actually mean “to praise the Lord”? One can easily slam the US Catholic Church (and the Protestants, too) for condemning the film for blasphemy and the Vatican for inserting the Kazantzakis novel in the Index Liborum Prohibitorium. But the Church, in her motherly pedagogy, has a right to protect her subjects from things she considers “maleficent.” That is the Church’s mission—very different from civil society’s mission, which is to protect the liberties, including that of choice, of its members. If the members of civil society are to admonish certain films or works of fiction because they feature religions that they do not like, or they like the film because their “enemies” are portrayed as failed people (in this case, failed missionaries), this indicates that we are coming to a point where (1) civil society is claiming a role that does not belong to it; and (2) we are becoming unable to like something for reasons other than political and ideological ones. We are losing the ability to speak or to stand in front of things we disagree even when they are not real.
Nevertheless, The Last Temptation has a strong grip over Catholics that, like myself, adventure to jump over the Church’s prohibition. As it happens with the works of Flannery O’Connor—arguably one of the greatest writers to be born on these United States of America—the God presented on The Last Temptation is not an all-loving ever so kind old grandpa with a white beard and a benevolent face. God is good, yes, and God is love. But to love God without fearing Him is not to love Him at all.3 The God of O’Connor, and the God of The Last Temptation, generates confusion among His chosen few, and, yes, there is some kind of synchronicity between O’Connor’s works and Scorsese’s picture. As is well known, O’Connor’s chosen are scumbags, drunkards and vagabonds: the lowest of the lowest—including, at one time, a transsexual circus freak—which, at first, fiercely reject their mission but later come to realize that there is no reason at all to live if not by accomplishing these missions, even if it means to die.4 Such is the case with Scorsese’s Christ. He is nothing at all (what does he do? He is a crossmaker for the Romans), as we come to realize in the film’s second scene. After deep soul-searching and violent attacks from God (similar to those from O’Connor’s God), Jesus accept his mission and starts to preach, gather his working class apostles and evangelize. Sure, The Last Temptation’s Jesus is not the real figure (that’s why I am not capitalizing the pronouns), so the picture is therefore allowed to use a good measure of liberty—such as Willem Dafoe’s insecure, anxious portrait of his character.
Then again, paradoxes arrive. Despite this description of Dafoe’s Jesus, his character does not, after understanding what God wants from him, deviates from the task to him delivered. So he goes to his cross. To know that he was born to die—and to rise again—is a heavy burden, and the pain is unimaginable, as Mel Gibson rightly portrayed in his 2004 masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ. So Jesus, as a mirror to the whole of mankind, is tempted. He lives at the ultimate crossroad, between the fully human and the fully divine, and as only as a divine creature can be, he is at once Man and God. This dual substance—integrated as a whole on the Cross (a figure that allows many allegories and symbolisms)—may live in harmony, but the paradox that is to be Man and God sometimes necessarily has to kick in; otherwise a purely physical passion could not be redeeming (therefore, manifesting, from the start, that physical pain, alone, is of a lesser importance). This conflict, elevated to its definitive extreme, is why The Last Temptation of Christ is, along with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), Robert Bresson’s pictures (especially L’argent ), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the magnificent, astonishing and near-perfect Il processo di Santa Teresa del bambino Gesù (1967), by the criminally neglected Italian master Vittorio Cottafavi, one of the greatest Catholic motion pictures ever shot. But all of these films are, beyond being great Catholic pictures, some of the best films of all times. What is strange is that while I lauded Scorsese’s film, I don’t think that his film can reach the same all-time level as those mentioned.5 The Church, as I said, has every right to try to avoid her sheep to watch the film, but those who did watch it were well-rewarded. I know many Catholics who find the picture a good one, and fully comprehended the themes and the subject. I am not saying that every one of them did like the film—many didn’t—but I dare to say that the majority did. Its approach is similar to Flannery O’Connor’s work, and the clash of matter and spirit, and the quest to fulfill the mission God Almighty commissioned us to perform on this earth speaks close to anyone’s heart.
* * *
But this is The Last Temptation of Christ. What about Silence? That’s a different game.
THE PLACE OF SILENCE
Silence is closer to Scorsese’s other films—which is actually to say that The Last Temptation of Christ is different from Scorsese’s other works—in the sense that it does not feature the same spiritual saga that Temptation does, nor the deep physical experience that burns in Jesus’s flesh in the earlier film. It tries to convey, yes, the doubt and the psychological drama that surely took place in the priests’ heads when faced with that situation. We see very well that there was torture, murders and tears, and that Fr. Rodrigues’s mental state decays progressively, culminating in his imprisonment scene, when he sees Jesus’s face reflected on the water instead of his own (the image that we see time and again in Silence and adorns the top of this text is a painting by El Greco). We all see that the ritual of stepping on the stone-carved image of Jesus (a fumi-e, as the Japanese inquisitors call) is very hard and when the situation becomes too difficult to handle common sense demands that apostasy is the best, if not the only, thing to do. And there we have it, Andrew Garfield screaming on a beach, “Apostatize! Apostatize!”
I won’t go into the subject of whether Fr. Rodrigues did or did not do the right thing. My opinion is the same of Bishop Robert Barron—the true Christians are the Japanese people, not the priests, who are from the start weak and unassuming. (And Scorsese himself believes that Fr. Rodrigues did the wrong thing, as we shall see later.)
Scorsese is primarily known to be director of fast films—never mind that many of his films are fairly overlong—that customarily surprise his audience by way of employing unusual techniques that by now are very usual: dolly shots, rapid cutting, flashes, red tint upon the images, “jump dissolves,” if such a thing exists, et cetera. These formal preferences are usually described as “realist,” a word that is usually preceded by the word “gritty,” as David Bordwell once jokingly asserted.6 There are instances where these preferences do not play prominent roles or are subdued, as is the case, for instance, of The King of Comedy (1982). This is the case, also, of Silence. There are no long tracking shots, there are no fast cuts nor big crane movements. One of the few virtuoso moments featured in the movie is a long take, mostly stationary, from Fr. Rodrigues’s point of view, inside a prison cell, where we observe the trial of a group of captured Kirishtans. There are a couple of cuts into the scene, but it is mainly composed of long takes—or at least what we could call as “slow cutting,” which, if we understand “Scorsesian cinema” as “fast films,” it is a very “anti-Scorsesian” scene. He ends it with an abrupt cut when a soldier beheads a man. This is where the true problem of Silence becomes evident.
STYLE AND FORM
Silence ends with a beautiful voice over narration by a Dutch trader: “I believe you have to accept, fathers, that he was lost to God. But as to that, only God can decide.” As these words are spoken, Scorsese’s crane starts to go into Rodrigues’s Buddhist-style coffin, past the crematory flames and digitally enter his burning resting place as we see that in his hands rests a rustic wood cross, given to him by a Kirishtan years before. What this image says is, “Oh, after all, he still believed in the Faith.”
As I said, I believe that the Right Reverend Bp. Barron in his YouTube review of Silence is right, and at the end of the day, no matter if deep down in his soul Fr. Rodrigues was still attached to God, he allowed the heathen to win. Just as Jordan Belfort never ceased to be a crook and still, to this very day, exploits people’s money, Rodrigues never really trusted in God and his cassock was never much more than a fashion clothing item as it happen with many priests nowadays. The film lets it be clear the moment that Fr. Rodrigues and Garupe notice that they had forgotten to say their prayers before starting to eat first meal in Japan.
But does the film condemn Ferreira for apostatizing? I’ll exclude Fr. Garupe from this matter since he gets his redemption by drowning trying to save a girl from the Japanese inquisitors.
The Japanese know that in his heart Fr. Rodrigues has lost his faith on God long ago. As the Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) says, Fr. Rodrigues is arrogant, “which means he’ll fall.” He has in fact fallen already—before ever setting foot on Japan. The martyrdom he has read about, and not only of the Catholic priests and laymen but also including of every saint since the time of the Apostles, meant nothing to him except to validate his inner wishes for glory. Material glory is usually the objective of Scorsese’s men—or at least of an orgiastic passion, such as wishing to be part of a violent group (Henry Hill’s “I always wanted to be a gangster”). Fr. Rodrigues’s (and Ferreira’s) orgiastic wish is to be a saint and a savior, but he forgets that the wishes of St. Peter, St. George, St. Bartholomew and St. Sebastian were not to become saints and venerated martyrs whose relics produce miracles.7 Their objective was the objective of Christianity: to spread the revealed Truth. Fr. Rodrigues, although he repeats the verses of Mark 16:15, to spread the Good News is his tertiary goal (the first is to become a saint, the second is avoiding to suffer too much). His quantum of solace is that he receives a fine public job, a wife and some land—his only punishment is that he periodically has to step on the fumi-e, something that after some time loses all of its original sense.
I said above that Scorsese appears to condemn Rodrigues’s apostatizing. I’m led to believe this because when he treads on the fumi-e Scorsese cuts to the Greco painting and it fades out. I have said in other writings, here and elsewhere, that there is unavoidably a hiatus between the manifest opinion of a filmmaker and what is portrayed and comprehended by his audience. The final author of the film—and actually of any piece of art—is its apt consumer. This is something that André Bazin knew already back in the 40s.8
So: Scorsese’s opinion is that Rodrigues’s choice was wrong. But what does the film tell us? Scorsese’s pictures usually portray opinions different than that of the filmmaker. Let’s use The Wolf of Wall Street as an example once again: In that film we have a crook, a dishonest man who leaves his faithful wife in order to “marry” a model, is a drug addict, money launderer, wife beater and law breaker. I know that Scorsese could not idolize his life style—but the picture does. Every time—and not only in this picture—that a violent scene is played with an upbeat rock song in the soundtrack, or feature some kind of visual gimmick such as tracking shots, upside down angles or red filters, there is idolization. For much less Jacques Rivette destroyed Gillo Pontecorvo’s career. For much less David Lean for 12 years was prevented from making a picture. But Rivette was a moral filmmaker and critic. His La religieuse (1966), despite the Diderot book being a piece of forgery, is much more pious than Silence. So when Scorsese’s camera tracks and spins into Joe Pesci beating the daylights out of a guy in an alley to the sound of Louis Prima’s “When It’s Sleepy Time down South” we get, no matter how the director thinks or wants to tell, an idolization of violence. Better yet, it’s not quite “idolization” what we get—that is the wrong word. It’s “idolatry.” Idolatry presupposes the adoration of form—be a material form or the reproduction of form (an image). In Scorsese’s case, and usually the case of every formalist director (I think it’s right to frame Martin Scorsese among the ranks of formalist directors), we have this abhorrent adoration of form disguised as inventive mise en scène. At least directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn have the manliness to admit that they are not interested in the nature of plot or in the humanity of their characters, but in the creation of situations that allow their cameras to revolve around plastic situations conveying spectacular images (that is why formalists are so fit to direct commercial ads: it is because formalism is publicity). Of course, this discussion leads us to questions such as, Is every kind of formalism publicity? or, Is R. W. Fassbinder, for instance, a formalist?—the latter being a consequence of the former. But I am talking about specifically Scorsese’s case, which I think is blatantly obvious. Formalism and idolatry sterilize the inner life of a picture, and Scorsese’s films presuppose that we think that they are actually faithful recreations of possibly human situations, and I never saw a street fight that played to the sound of a Rolling Stones cut.
I know that the “idolization of violence” issue is a touchy one because the objection to his films because of style can lead to obvious or shallow complaints. Even the subject’s name—“idolization of violence”—can sound like a moralistic complaint on the lines of the question Do violent video-games incites young boys to violent behavior? But just because it sounds ugly it does not mean that it is untrue.
It can be argued that Scorsese’s style of violence portrayal comes from, among other places, the director Samuel Fuller. For example, his penchant for upbeat music playing during fistfight scenes (think of The Departed  and Mean Streets) seems similar to the opening scene of Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964). But everything about The Naked Kiss is ironic: we discover that the protagonist is a bald woman in this scene and who would in a million years think of a bald prostitute? And more than that: Fuller’s violent scenes are not, as many of Scorsese’s violent scenes are, meant to be fun or are meant to keep the spectator awake during the long and out of control running time; they are to contain the very fabric of human stamina and fury. Sometimes this means that the Fuller protagonist, be him a cowboy or a journalist, needs to punch a guy in the face, lose one of his balls or to die with a closed fist, ready to fight. Useless death is verboten, and “If you die I’ll kill you!” Therefore, Fuller’s jazz-like soundtracks cannot be compared to Scorsese’s rock songs. Jazz in Fuller means the inner beast that lives underneath the imagistic surface of his films; it’s the Leviathan and “upon earth there is not his like.” So, by Biblical and cosmic reasons, which to me are the same, Scorsese and Samuel Fuller cannot be compared.
For Fuller, violence has cosmic reasons. For Scorsese, it is entertaining, no matter how much he repeats that violence was quite banal in Little Italy when he was a kid, and how your best friend could kill you if his bosses so demanded. So there you have the justification to the “funny” murder scenes. Cinema is not real life—it is only a projective image of it. But being a projective image of the real (and therefore of truth) it has and ought to have a responsibility towards what is portrayed on the screen. If a man is punched in the face to the point of disfigurement, we should not hear “Gimme Shelter.” There ought to be a measure of serenity, perhaps even of respect, on the part of the filmmaker, since, as Paul Thomas Anderson wisely asserts in an interview, they have a responsibility.9 For me the best example of it would be the battle scenes of Lancelot du Lac (1974) by Robert Bresson. Sure, he and Scorsese are worlds of distance away, but so are the latter and John Cassavetes, and it does not stop Scorsese from saying that the director of A Woman under the Influence (1974) is a great influence on him. Elsewhere, also, Scorsese speaks about Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes (1969) and the “ritualistic” way of portraying death.10 He even says that he showed Antonio das Mortes to his cast and crew during the pre-production stages of Gangs of New York and The Departed. But there is no resemblance that one can draw between Scorsese and Rocha except the use of percussion music in The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York. On the other hand, surprisingly, there are multitudes of similarities between Bresson and Mel Gibson, especially between L’argent and The Passion of the Christ.
But, as we recall, in Silence there are no long tracking shots and fast cutting. It is, as the jargon says, a “sober” picture. Violence is treated like the invitation to martyrdom. For the better part of the film, Scorsese avoids turning his camera from the subject, as happens, for instance, when a group of Kirishtans is crucified before the coming tide by the sea. It has been noted, also, that Kim and Kathryn Kluge’s soundtrack is mainly composed of crickets and the wind (I recall only one instance of non-diegetic melodic music in the film: it is Jordi Savall’s improvisation on “O Gloriosa Domina”). This should be enough, some think and not without reason, to convince us that Silence is indeed a grim “sober” picture.
But Scorsese is not capable to go to the hilt with his purpose of making a “realistic” picture. Because although there is clearly the intention of making this painful and suffering portrait of faith and struggle, the film lacks virility to do it. There is something clumsy about this director that no one has been able to perceive: he is not really violent. Consider “Big” Jim Colosimo’s assassination in Boardwalk Empire’s pilot episode: he is shot from behind his head from close range. Scorsese’s camera is facing Colosimo’s face and when the shot comes the blood splashes into the lens. It is an absolutely ridiculous moment that is meant to be shocking; it is a moment that is meant to portray how the Mafia is cruel and cold blooded, but it ends up being laughable—not only because it is a choice of poor taste but because the blood is CGI. Scorsese’s reality is like CGI, whether this time he is trying to be serious or if he is just making a film “for them,” as it is the case of The Departed. Therefore, there is no real difference between playing “When It’s Sleepy Time down South” and playing nothing at all since he thinks in “style” terms, in formal aspects. A director that thinks that some films deserve more reverence than others and that faith—in the case of a Catholic filmmaker—is to be “more findable” in some films than in others is bound not to find it anywhere. This comes as no surprise for me that his really religious film is The Last Temptation of Christ, where the film, in its deep simplicity, speaks about its issues straightforwardly.
So the real problem with Silence is not, as John Patterson ridiculously points out in his review in the Guardian, that it is “ouverly devout.”11 First that there is nothing wrong in making “ouverly devout” pictures—except making bad “ouverly devout” pictures. Or are there only spaces for secular films? André Bazin, to quote him again, once said that “All films are born free and equal,” and it must certainly be true also to devotional films. The thing here is that I wished that Silence were devotional—overly or otherwise. But Silence is not. Silence is pseudo-devotional. But if this film teaches anything, it teaches that if Martin Scorsese believes in anything, he believes in form.