Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors around.
There’s not many directors that take creative risks on their directorial CV. From Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s CV reads like an eclectic mix of genres, constantly re-inventing, experimenting and rediscovering. His film making passion shines through, balancing the finite line between entertainment, factual knowledge and thought-provoking consequences.
Scorsese is a great storyteller, there’s no question about it. With his latest release, Silence is a great example of his versatility.
“The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger.” – Father Alessandro Valignano
I think it’s a fair assumption that religious films don’t do well at the box office. The exception is Passion of the Christ which grossed $619 million worldwide, which I can imagine church groups postponing midday mass and seeing it in droves like an organised school trip…
Joking aside, I don’t think there’s an accurate explanation for that thought. It could be viewed as a combination of factors. Is it the feeling that we don’t want to be lectured or preached at? Is it because of Hollywood taking creative liberties with the source material? Does the film conflict with our own beliefs?
Whilst the explanation can’t always be known, there might be a viewpoint to determine it.
When Scorsese made The Wolf of Wall Street, people talked about how excessive it was because of Jordan Belfort’s abhorrent and disgusting behaviour. It was a combination of hedonism and debauchery as he cheated the system, becoming abundantly rich in the process. But Scorsese made a careful decision not to judge Belfort. If Scorsese interjected by adding a morality stance, The Wolf of Wall Street would be a completely different film.
Some religious films comes from some sort of standpoint. If the standpoint is strong enough, you end up with a film that’s unsatisfying both on its spiritual intent and on entertainment level. You could easily end up with something completely cheesy such as God’s Not Dead 2.
Silence is far from perfect but it also escapes that standpoint. Scorsese achieves that by letting the camera do the work, the same trait he used for The Wolf of Wall Street. The camera is merely an observer and we as the audience are witnesses. He never tries to make a judgement on the two conflicting faiths of Christianity and Buddhism in 17th Century Japan.
All Scorsese asks of the audience is to watch with an open mind – that is all that is required. What you get in return is something intimate, personal and challenging.
Silence is a complete 360 degree turn away from The Wolf of Wall Street. The Wolf of Wall Street was bright, bold and in your face as Belfort’s antics dominate the screen. Silence is a stripped back and internal tale with cinema arthouse qualities. Filmed on 35mm print, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures detail, giving depth to the surroundings. Colours (in some scenes) are neutralised giving a haunting, omnipresent feel to the film. The music is largely absent – unnerving and unlike Scorsese as your senses are filled with the ambient sounds of the Japanese landscape. The film slowly draws you into the time period, bringing authenticity that you can immerse yourself in. From a production and technical perspective, Silence is a visually beautiful film and probably the best he’s directed.
“I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?” – Father Sebastião Rodrigues
Faith has been paramount to Scorsese’s films. In the opening of Mean Streets for example, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is looking for forgiveness before going back to his life on the streets. Silence is no different as it explores the struggles of faith amongst oppression, tragedy and clear religious persecution. It does this in two ways.
The first half of the film explores it from the Christian perspective. We learn that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has denounced God in public. His students, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) take it upon themselves to learn the real truth. In their journey into the unknown they befriend local communities – Japanese Christians who pray and keep their faith hidden from the Japanese authorities who view the religion as a corruption on their Buddhist values.
The second half of the film explores it from the Japanese perspective. Transformed to what I could describe as a prisoner of war scenario, we see the real consequences of punishment, cruelty and oppression, something which Scorsese doesn’t shy away from. It’s uncomfortable and brutal. When there’s moments of respite, we get insights into the Japanese culture and why the Buddhist religion is integral. Their interpretation of God is vastly different from what Christians believe.
With a three-hour runtime, there’s a lot of take in and question and thankfully the split escapes what easily could have been a jarring experience.
The ideology of faith and morality comes to the forefront. Do you stick to your faith, taking untold psychological and physical torture (endure) or relinquish the faith so that you can survive (subservient by apostatizing). Does it become an act of mercy if you simply give in? For Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, this is a question they must answer. The film becomes the ultimate test of what they believe in, in particular Father Rodrigues. He’s completely devoted and immersed in his beliefs and at one point he mimics the life of Jesus, suffering as he would have.
When the world is full of atrocities, is God with us – always and forever? Is he with us in times of need or crisis? Through the good or the bad? Do we feel a sense of abandonment when our calls are not answered? Silence becomes a personal and intimate internalisation of prayer and our open conversations between God, thanks to the help of no musical score to distract us. Just as the camera moves in some scenes through the dense and haunting fog, prayer is like reaching out into the evanescent void in hope we are heard. Silence truly steps up a gear when the human struggles are explored, not just from the priests, but from the Japanese people by delving into the emotional complexity of the world.
Silence brings up another topical debate because in essence, no one or religious faith gets out cleanly. From a Christianity perspective, the priests are there to find their teacher and spread the word of God in Japan. On the other hand, could the priests be viewed as arrogant and insensitive, going into a country and not respecting the local cultures? It’s an argument that’s no different from what missionaries have done over the years, converting people for their own agendas. Does interference do more harm that good? From a Japanese/Buddhist perspective, it reveals how ingrained the religious culture is in their society. But on the other hand, if you believe in something else, does that warrant religious persecution and torture? Do you have a right to impose your will onto others?
Looking at the bigger picture, it’s amazing to watch how religious ideologies have not changed. Watching the conflict on-screen, you get the great sense of deja vu:
- The Crusaders – a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Latin church.
- Northern Ireland – the conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
- Nigeria – a country divided by a Muslim north and Christian south.
- Rwanda – the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis which led to the genocide of the Tutsis.
- Nazi Germany – Hitler cleansing the country so that all was left was a pure Aryan race. All ethnic minorities, in particular the Jews were sent to the concentration camps.
- Today’s terrorism with ISIS.
It’s the overwhelming feeling of history repeating and how many conflicts or wars that are based on religion. Silence certainly encapsulates the real life parables inferred from it.
At no point in the film was there a flicker of hope. There was always a foreboding sense that this was a losing battle.
“Step on your Jesus.” – Inquisitor Inoue
What hurts Silence is the runtime. At 161 minutes and the slow but definitely not boring pace, it’s not the easiest of viewings. It can be gruelling. It’s understandable on the choices Scorsese makes – he simply made a film he wanted to make, but it wouldn’t have hurt if some scenes were sped up.
It’s also a film that you can’t watch anyhow. You need to commit to the film as the film commits to you.
Finally, Andrew Garfield gives a performance of a lifetime. His quiet reflections are beautiful. However for a film that is supposed to be about Portuguese Jesuit priests, the authenticity starts to crumble. The accents slip throughout whereas Liam Neeson does what John Wayne use to do – not bother. Whilst not distracting enough to disrupt Scorsese’s overall attempt, maybe the film would have been better if they hired actors closer to the ethnicity and language. But I guess the sad realisation is that Scorsese wouldn’t have been able to get his passion project made without big stars attached.
Scorsese takes a 25 years in the making risk and what I love about Silence is that it’s far removed and different from his previous films. This is a deep and philosophical look at religion and the inner peace we must find to give life meaning. Silence completes his religion trilogy, following on from the themes of The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun.
Silence is meant to be challenging. Silence is meant to ask questions on faith and your beliefs. But most importantly, Scorsese leaves that judgement to you.
Silence won’t be universally adopted but I can imagine the elements will be dissected and analysed for years to come.