‘Silence’: Typical Scorsese, with Ample Wailing

This film is a long and painful journey, so use the bathroom first.

By Dorothy Woodend 7 Jan 2017 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence took some 30 years to reach theatres. But it graces us with its presence this week, and due deference must be paid. Lofty statements about Scorsese’s genius, the glory of his cinematic language, the nature of faith and belief, and man’s role in the cosmos or some such puffery fill the air.  

Certainly Scorsese has made some good films, but I do not think Silence is one of them.

To be fair, the film is very beautiful, and credit must be given to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who crafts a sumptuous vision of 17th century Japan. Lush vistas of coastal and rural villages are delectable, to the point of making you want to lick the screen. Working from Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed novel, Scorsese has plenty of large ideas to play with. But the film is inert as stone. Worse, it is self-serious in a way that almost demands a few pies be thrown at the screen. Where are the Monty Python boys when you need them?

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Except, in this film, the inquisition is in feudal Japan. The good old Catholic Church has been attempting to get a toehold in the soul of the nation by sending flocks of black cassocked priests to convert the populace. One such priest is Father Cristóvão Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson. In the film’s opening sequence, the Japanese Buddhists are pouring boiling water over the open wounds of Christians who are pinned like so many horrible butterflies to crosses dotted about the landscape. There is a great gnashing of teeth, rending of hair, and wailing.

These Buddhists are not the kindly Uma Thurman variety, or the tummy-rubbing smiling Buddha statues. No, these Buddhists have invented all kinds of interesting and fun ways to bring about Christians apostasy, including wrapping folk in palm fronds and roasting them alive or crucifying the faithful in the ocean. The torturous torturing is finally too much for Ferreira, who is able to withstand his own suffering but cannot bear to witness the suffering of others. He snaps like a twig and stomps on Christ. Or more correctly, he puts his foot on a fumi-e, a carved image of Jesus, and recants his faith.

All of this is related by an elderly priest to two young Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, played by the hairstyles of Andrew Garfield (Spiderman) and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren of Star Wars). Garfield and Driver are obviously committed to the roles they have been dealt although their Portuguese accents have a way of wandering away and occasionally falling off a cliff. Driver in particular took things very seriously, losing some 50 pounds for his role so he resembles a Goya painting.

A two-man army of God, the pair set off to find the missing Father Ferreira and determine whether he has indeed gone native in Japan. So begins a very long and painful journey for everyone involved, especially we the audience. If you don’t take the time to visit the washroom before the film starts, be prepared to dash out some three hours later, thanking the heavens for facilities that are close by.

Upon landing in the fabled East, the two priests find a Japanese guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who helps to sneak them into the countryside. They soon discover enclaves of Kakure Kirishitans, hidden Christians who have been covering their faith in fear of persecution. The arrival of the two Jesuits sets in motion a series of events that takes a very long time to unfold. For the film’s first hour or so, the two men are huddled in a shack on a hillside, debating various points of faith and looking increasingly bored. In the midnight hour they minister to the locals, giving communion and hearing confessions.

Here, things started to go wrong for me in the film. The Japanese villagers, almost without fail, are depicted as dirty and ragged with rotted teeth and wild hair. In broken English they beseech the two priests for salvation, redemption, and the promise that things will get better in the paradise of God’s love. The image of the Japanese faithful — hysterical, shrieky, and slightly demented — seems an odd decision on the part of the filmmaker, especially when set against the boyish prettiness of Garfield, who sports feathered locks that make him look like a cross between Barry Gibb and Jesus Christ. Garfield and Driver are most indisputably movie stars and thus command audience attention and to some extent sympathy. But their nobility, enshrined in lovely teeth and beautiful hair, not to mention their grave and stately ways, ensures they are the characters that matter. The Japanese are only so much landscape. 

Garfield is forced to carry the weight of the narrative, and it is through his eyes and his voice (in the form of letters written back home) that the story unfolds. Thus we are stuck with his perspective, forced to witness the various atrocities committed against the Japanese faithful as people are variously beheaded, burned alive, or hung upside down and bled to death, all in an effort to make the young priest renounce his belief. But these people and their suffering are not really the focus of the film. It is Rodrigues’s spiritual testing that is at the heart of things. Garfield does his best to portray a man in a crisis of faith. He rants and rails, open-mouthed in a rictus of agony. But it all seems horribly over-staged, and for all the blood and pain onscreen, it’s strangely unemotional.

Things get stranger still when the young priest is finally caught and rounded up with a group of fellow Christians. Cue the entrance of the grand inquisitor (played by Issey Ogata), and the film comes to resemble a bad production of The Mikado. With buckteeth that would make Bugs Bunny proud and a fussy manner (there is a lot of business with a fan and shooing flies), Ogata’s character seems like he belongs in an entirely different film. The character is so broad it feels comic. Maybe this was intentional, but it has the effect of making the inquisitor much more interesting to watch anyone else. A tiny moment of him sinking back with a gentle puff of air into his ornate robes has far more resonance than all of Rodrigues’s agonized emoting. At least the inquisitor is entertaining, though, it must be said, also kinda racist. 

More successful, or at least more believable, is Tadanobu Asano as a Japanese translator who attempts to reason Rodrigues away from his faith. By the film’s third act, and the reappearance of Father Ferreira, you may be losing patience and bladder control and simply want to be freed from this exercise in filmmaker hubris.

Again, to be fair, the film long nursed at the teat of Scorsese and has been so many years in development that it is maybe understandable why it feels so laborious. Scorsese seems determined to not let you go until he has wrung every last little bit of juice from the action. And, somewhere in the film’s interminable running time, I had to stop and acknowledge the sheer ballsiness of a director who would make a film like Silence, a film that tests audience’s patience, endurance, and level of interest in theological debate in duelling bad accents. (Neeson doesn’t even attempt anything vaguely Portuguese, but sticks with his usual Irish rumble.) It is brave but also perverse, and in some fashion I would argue strangely selfish. The film has long been touted as Scorsese’s passion project. It prompts the question: what does an artist owe to his audience?

More specifically, if you make something because you are obsessed with it, does that mean you should inflict it on an audience? Who is this film really for, I wondered?

Shūsaku Endō’s novel has already been adapted to the screen twice already. But like a great many literary works, what is lifted through the grace and cadence of language can fall oddly flat when manifested onscreen. Thus, when Jesus gives Rodrigues permission to jump on his face, in the novel it reads gently: “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

In the film, Jesus suddenly pipes up, like he was on a loud speaker somewhere. What ought to be moving is like a strange jolt from above, or maybe to the side of the theatre. “Jesus Christ! What the hell’s that?” I thought.  

In reading various reviews of the film, it is curious the span of opinion that is invoked, everything from Richard Brody’s near-orgasmic review in the New Yorker to Jen Yamato’s more nuanced take.

Maybe this is a good thing. After all, humans have been debating points of faith since the existence of people first began. And that too is a point of some considerable argument. I don’t have a problem with filmmakers wrestling with the ideas of religion and belief. But at some point Silence simply became ridiculous for me. I wanted to rebel, to escape, to recant the doctrinaire seriousness of what is onscreen, to roll my eyes at the ham-fisted manipulation of the film’s final scene, and apostatize the movie itself, a doubting Thomas, or maybe a doubting Dorothy to the end.  [Tyee]

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