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Scorsese’s 'Silence' Is A Beautiful But Ambiguous Film


When the lights came up at the end of Silence, the only thing I was sure of was that I’d just been through two hours and 40 minutes of ambiguity. The story is about Jesuit priests in Japan in the 17th century, and it’s a little like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Two young Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are sent into the heart of anti-Christian Japan to search for their old teacher, the near-legendary Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

These priests are driven by the hope of converting Japan to Christianity, and their spirits are buoyed by their belief, possibly inaccurate that many Japanese are accepting Christianity. This comes in spite of unrelenting persecution that includes intricate and horrific forms of torture, which Scorsese puts on screen.

Martin Scorsese has never pictured religion as an amiable pastime for the faint of heart. As early as Mean Streets in 1973, Charlie, a young Italian man in New York’s Little Italy, puts his hand over candles and stoves to see how the fires of hell might feel. Religion describes a scary life, and afterlife.

The Japanese force Christians to step on an image of Jesus to signify their rejection of Christianity. The two young priests refuse, so the Japanese drown and behead many converts, and tell the priests that if they will put their feet on the image, they will stop killing their followers. What comes of that is a tough confrontation, and it’s the source of the ferocious ambiguity that permeates the movie. The priests think things like why does god make their people suffer so grievously, while the Japanese ask why these priests are so proud and arrogant that they will let people be tortured and killed because of their dream of a Christian Japan.

The Japanese grand inquisitor speaks of mercy and of how Buddhism is about helping people. He doesn’t mention, of course, that the Japanese are not required to murder and torture, especially in the name of mercy.

Silence indicts everyone for hypocrisy in religion, and for the disconnect between beautiful faith and harsh practice. And lurking below the surface is the question of imperialism. For the great expansionist European colonial powers, priests often led the way. They made inroads among the populations before the economic exploiters and the armies marched in. And Scorsese often films the young priests as voyeurs. They hide in the dunes and watch as some of their followers are tied to crosses in the surf to await the rising tide which pummels and drowns them. Rodrigues and Garupe may feel bad, but they also never stop watching.

The film is strikingly beautiful, and you find yourself watching right along with the priests. You can’t take your eyes off it, and the work of the torturers is unhappily an arresting sight. They’re ingenious and patient, as with great deliberation they contrive their devices and situations.

Silence doesn’t waste time on the small stuff. And there’s a sense that Scorsese is joining Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in a quest for the almighty. Among other things, the title refers to the silence of god. The priests continually ask god to speak, to tell them what to do. But when they hear or see something, it’s from their own minds. Bergman took on the silence of god a few times, but did it best in 1957 in The Seventh Seal in about an hour and a half, in a mostly severe black and white, and told a story about a knight playing chess with death.

Scorsese’s Silence is more expansive than that. It gets into the clash of cultures and competing religions. It’s exotic and colorful. It’s also a movie that goes to the head far more than it goes to the heart. There’s something a little chilly and distant and disconcerting. Martin Scorsese is a magnificent filmmaker; it’s just hard sometimes to know what he’s up to.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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