'Silence' examines the line between faith and ego
PHOTO BY CAPPA DEFINA PRODUCTIONS
Where is it playing?: The Palm Theatre, SLO
What's it rated?: R
What's it worth?: $ Matinee
What's it worth?: $ Matinee
Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street) directs this historical drama about two Catholic priests—Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver)—whose faith is tested when they travel to Japan in search of their mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), during a period when Catholicism is outlawed. (161 min.)
Glen: It’s easy to forget Scorsese’s interest in Catholicism—after all, so many of his films are about criminals, sociopaths, and psychopaths—but before becoming one of the most famed and critically lauded filmmakers in history, he flirted with the idea of becoming a Catholic priest. His interest in Catholicism, however, is a bit unorthodox. His other foray into religious filmmaking was The Last Temptation of Christ, which humanized Jesus by depicting him as succumbing to temptation when he imagines himself engaged in sexual acts. This did not enamor Scorsese to a lot of Catholics, who prefer their Christ as they prefer their God and Pope—infallible. This time around, Scorsese—who co-wrote the script with longtime collaborator Jay Cocks based on a novel by Shûsaku Endô—examines the hubris of international evangelism and its misunderstanding of other cultures, but more importantly, it looks at the line between faith and ego. The depicted priests are “called” to their mission, but the ultimate question is whether they’re willing to let their followers die to prove their belief system is “right,” or whether apostatizing—rejecting their faith—to save their followers’ lives is the real act of Christ-like love. It’s an interesting, thoughtful experiment from an important director, so I’m glad I saw the film, but I’m not quite sure I enjoyed watching it.
Anna: The film opens with a narrator, the voice of Padre Ferreira (Neeson) as he watches Japanese Christians being burned with hot water, tortured, and nailed to posts. He explains that some of the men take pride in that method of death, preferring martyrdom to denouncing their faith. We are then introduced to Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver) who cannot believe their teacher and mentor Ferreira has truly lost faith, vowing to find him despite certain danger. The first third of the film follows them on their journey into Japan, first on a Chinese boat with their guide, a man named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) whom they find drunken and dirty—but is the only one willing to make the journey and a sinner’s soul looking for forgiveness. Then the pair must hide away in the mountains, available to the faithful in the villages but under the radar of the Inquisitor and his men. The frustrations of the language barrier and the faulty understanding of Christianity that the Japanese have are evident, especially in Padre Rodrigues. How can he explain to the parents of the baby that he just baptized that it does not mean the child will live in a paradise, but find paradise after his death? How many times will Kichijiro ask for confession, only to sin again immediately? The entire journey, while steeped in the selflessness of these two priests who feel bound to spread their truth, feels a bit like self-flagellation, especially once they are captured and made to watch as their followers die even after apostatizing themselves. What the Inquisitor wants is to have the priests themselves fold, bend, and break their devotion and ego.
Glen: Doesn’t that sound like a real fun ride? Yeah, not so much. This may be an important film but it’s not a pleasant one, especially if you find evangelism arrogant. But the story is based on historical events. The difference between the missionary incursions of, say, Japan and California, is missionaries in Japan didn’t have a standing army behind them to enslave and convert the native population, and the Japanese people—unlike California’s natives—had the military means to reject the interlopers. I think of Buddhism as a non-violent philosophy, but apparently not in 17th century Japan! One question the film raises but doesn’t really answer is why the Japanese authorities were so afraid of Christianity. Buddhism was the national “religion,” and maybe Buddha’s Second Noble Truth that “craving causes suffering so to avoid suffering one must let go of desire” made the population easier to control than Catholicism’s idea that you can sin and seek forgiveness. It’s certainly a thought-provoking film, and it’s well acted and beautifully filmed, but it may not appeal to all audiences. If you’re a film nut or Scorsese fan, it’s a must see, but considering the director’s oeuvre, it doesn’t strike me as one of his most significant films. For me there’s simply no one to cheer for. I didn’t respect the priests or the Japanese authorities, and Japanese Christians were simply lambs to the slaughter. Some “salvation,” eh?
Anna: It certainly seems like a passion project for Scorsese, one he’s had in development for more than 25 years. It’s easy to see why, with that much time behind it, he ended up with a film length of 161 minutes. In my opinion, way too drawn out for a movie that, for me, felt mostly like a slog through the devotion and ego of Rodrigues. When Rodrigues is held captive, he argues the virtues and necessity of Christianity to Japan, how it is a plant that can root and grow everywhere. His captor in turn tells him that Japan is a swamp, and that nothing will grow there. Rodrigues demands to see the Inquisitor, who he learns is the very same man he has been arguing with. Soon Rodrigues’ resolve starts to sputter, his unanswered prayers playing tricks on his mind, saying, “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?” That silence tortures Rodrigues as he watches those around him die because of his refusal to apostate. If the choice is to demean yourself for the sparing of lives, is that not the more Christ-like choice than to let your ego and blind faith prevent you? Rodrigues is called out by Ferreira, who reminds him that his trials are not the same as Jesus’, that his pride is what is truly preventing him from helping the souls of the prisoners sentenced to death if he refuses to place his foot on a picture of Jesus. While beautifully shot and well acted, with a heart-wrenching historical storyline, for me Silence fell short of its attempt at an epic, instead drawing out a long fraught and frustrating tale of the trappings of devotion, religion, and pride.
Sun Screen is written by New Times’ Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at email@example.com.