If you can claim that a film successfully marries the philosophical inner-conflicts of Ingmar Bergman with the epic majesty of Akira Kurosawa, is there really anything more to say about its worth as a work of art? Martin Scorsese’s latest is undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical feats to reach cinemas in the last year and likely one of the greatest accomplishments of the American master’s long cinematic career to date. Silence is a passion project. A hand-wringing reflection on what Bergman scholars would call “The Silence of God” set in 17th Century Japan, this three hour historical epic is essentially and spiritually a form of box office poison. It should be considered as something Scorsese got away with (after more than a decade of false starts), not something that failed in its wide theatrical release. Silence was designed to lose money, something it’s been doing quite well in its first week of national distribution. Its ambitions reach beyond financial concerns and easy critical points to search out something within its auteurist creator’s soul, as well as something possibly divine & transcendent outside human reach. The journey getting there is long, brutal, hopelessly cruel, and, in its most honest moments, a destructive force of self-deluded madness.
Two Jesuit priests from Portugal continue a failed mission to spread Catholicism to Japan despite the Japanese government’s systematic destruction of the religion. They use the disappearance and reported defection of their former teacher to justify the excursion, which partly sets up a Search for Colonel Kurtz type storyline straight out of Apocalypse Now. For the most part, though, this suicide mission is a spiritually selfish act for the holy men, who take dictums like “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” way too close to the heart. They practice a religion that asks them to spread the Truth globally no matter what the personal sacrifice. The problem is that the sacrifice is rarely personal and the Japanese Inquisition that meets their efforts crucifies, drowns, and burns the very people they intend to “save” through Catholic conversion. They practice an outlawed faith, praying in secret & hiding in daylight like Holocaust victims. It’s a true war on Christianity, unlike whatever delusional Evangelicals think is happening in modern America. They’re the invading force in this war, though. They travel to a foreign nation to spread a faith that doesn’t belong in an Eastern philosophical context, only to see the native people tortured for the transgression. Japanese officials are exhausted by the routine of the exercise, taking time to host theological debates (which are, of course, corrupted by an imbalance of power), arguing that the converted are merely the poverty-stricken taking solace in the promise of Paradise after death, never truly understanding the Christian faith beyond that hope for posthumous rebirth. Until the priests can repent and revoke their imposition of a Universal Truth that’s proving to be not so universal, they struggle with delusions of their own Christ-like godliness, whether the mass death & torture of their converts is God’s Plan, and whether God is there at all. The answers to these questions are difficult, insular, and widely open to audience interpretation.
There’s so much to be impressed by in Silence, but what most strikes me is its rough around the edges looseness. For an expensive religious epic that took over a decade to realize onscreen, it’s a work that feels oddly misshapen, which is a blessing considering how dull this literary adaptation might have felt if kept “faithful” & tightly controlled. Like with Altman’s Short Cuts, PT Anderson’s The Master, and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, there’s a surprising immediacy to the ways Scorsese allows Silence to feel oddly unfinished, as if he were still wrestling with the film internally well after it was shipped for screenings. The film is masterful in its high contrast nature photography of coastal & mountainside Japan, but fuzzy around the edges in its epistolary narration, violent zoom-outs, and strange moments of possible hallucination. Even the casting & performances can feel oddly loose. Liam Neeson provides some A Monster Calls style narration in an early scene before going fully into full Ra’s Al Ghul mode for his Colonel Kurtz-type defector. Andrew Garfield & Adam Driver are a little goofy & out of place in their roles as the film’s main Portuguese missionaries, but it’s a feeling that plays well into their characters’ in-over-their-heads naïveté. This becomes especially apparently as they’re outshone by the film’s Japanese cast (which includes Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto among its ranks), who clash with that goofy naïveté with a heartbreaking emotional gravity. The film’s visual craft and sudden bursts of cruel violence all feel tightly controlled, purposefully positioned in regards to how they affect the overall narrative. Everything within that narrative is much less nailed down, though, as if Scorsese himself is using the confusion to reach for something beyond his own grasp. It’s fascinating to watch.
It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.