Martin Scorsese returns to Christianity with Silence, based on the historical fiction novel. At nearly 3 hours in length, how else would you kick off 2017? Lee reviews.
Did Jesus really have it so bad? Perhaps one of the unintended questions from Silence, director Martin Scorsese’s latest religious passion project, but after witnessing the intense and prolonged suffering of main protagonist Rodrigues for nearly two hours, you start to question whether Jesus really did suffer enough before claiming the burden of all sin. The parallel Rodrigues forms with Jesus, and his conflict to out-Jesus Jesus becomes something of a fascinating exploration of Christian suffering, and while it’s not a particularly serious question, the film does make you wonder at what point Jesus was ready to let Rodrigues know to throw in the towel and let him accept second-rung saviour for an immeasurable amount more the pain.
An exploration of Christian, Buddhist and human faith through the trials and tribulations typically expected of a gruelling spiritual test, at times Silence conjures moments of enlightenment and clarity through its visceral cilice. Sympathy is the operative word, and the scenario given, of a man tested of his faith and his compassion for others pulled to its limits, is an effective one. Through cloud-soaked visuals and sombre silence we sit idly as Rodrigues bears his own cross, burdened by his own ambitions and beliefs, and regardless of creed it’s difficult to find a reason not to emphasise, to see our own battles through his efforts.
It’s a shining praise for the set-pieces, the acting, the cinematography and the general pace of the movie; at nearly three hours it seldom lulls, though it can break the spirits. Revelling in human misery can lead to its own sense of self-discovery that can have you, the audience, questioning your own limits in a cruel world; and there’s something to be praised in how the film compliments that notion through its portrayal of silence, and the lack thereof, in its surface and metanarrative. There’s so much to make of the audio here alone, so much to read into, that those who enjoy the scholarly side of film are sure to be in for a grim but satisfying time as well. Everything builds in on itself to present one of the most densely crafted pieces of cinema in a long time, a somewhat compact blending of old cinema and modern spectacle that really can hold the attention quite firmly.
All of which makes it more the shame when its central narrative can’t support the ambitions behind it. While there is something to be made of the real historical horrors that came of the “Kakure Kirishitan” movement and the times surrounding it, to establish the narrative, the Buddhists had to be portrayed as entities of uncomprehensive malice. The framing toys with the idea of breaking down the two central faiths, to a point where one could agree when the narrative points out their essential similarities that there are essential similarities to agree upon, but it in no way evenly bestows upon Buddhism the same humility that it affords Christianity. We hear no accounts of the equivocal moments in history like the Crusades, we see no Buddhist peasant suffer nearly the same poverty or seclusion and we never draw attention to the human beings doing the actual damage; only rank names, cultural titles and Japan itself are to blame.
Even when based on real stories (which this is only in the loosest sense), bias upends the balance of the moral compass and essentially corrodes at the integrity of the film. “Political Correctness” isn’t the point; simply a fairer view of the events allow it to feel less like manipulation, and grants the viewer some agency in what information they’re taking in.
Admitting that some Christians are corrupt, and not in the sense that they are corrupt against the rules and expectations of Christianity but as actual human beings actually hurting others intentionally for gain or power or something negative and base, would not distort the core message of the movie and maintain a little more of a fairer leaning on the people involved. Even having a Buddhist character who isn’t essentially a crazed, anti-Christian maniac would make the difference. When introducing a companion character for Rodrigues, a relatable captor as they do with Tadanobu Asano’s interpreter, would it miss the point to have him show unabashed sympathy as opposed to relishing torture as punishment for perceived ignorance? If our only crossing point is Ferreira, then we don’t have a crossing point; we have a Christian movie masquerading as a historical piece, pretending to question faith when all it is doing is congratulating Christianity.
Not to spoil, but the ending seals the deal on this reading. What could have been a great realist take on the honour and strength of faith is tarnished with a phoney-baloney Deus Ex Patronise and a reveal so hilariously unambiguous it undoes much of the film’s strengths with regards to faith in adversary by stating loudly and clearly: but it didn’t matter anyway. It’s cheap, and ironically puts very little faith in the audience being able to decide anything for themselves, even in a narrative as one-sided as this often is.
It’s a real shame, because Silence really is still worth watching no matter who you are, but the manipulative nature that runs the show leaves the film with an asterisk to its focus on human sympathy: the movie wants you to sympathise with some more than others. How very Un-Christian.