Martin Scors­ese's 'Si­lence'

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Only in the real world do hu­mans pos­sess free will, whereas any film about the na­ture of be­lief ef­fec­tively re­quires the di­rec­tor to play god, forc­ing them to an­swer the very questions they of­ten set out to raise. De­spite this para­dox, in the his­tory of cin­ema, there have been many great films about Chris­tian faith - though not nearly enough: Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Ordet," Robert Bres­son's "The Di­ary of a Coun­try Priest," Jean-Pierre Melville's "Leon Morin, Priest." Now, add to that Martin Scors­ese's "Si­lence," which marks the cul­mi­na­tion of a nearly 30-year jour­ney to adapt Ja­panese nov­el­ist Shusaku Endo's tale of a 17th-cen­tury Je­suit mis­sion­ary faced with the dilemma of whether to apo­s­ta­tize.

And yet, judged in broadly cin­e­matic terms, "Si­lence" is not a great movie, de­spite hav­ing been di­rected by one of the medium's great­est mas­ters at a point of great ma­tu­rity (this is the last film one might ex­pect to im­me­di­ately fol­low the bac­cha­na­lian ex­cess of "The Wolf of Wall Street"). Though un­de­ni­ably gor­geous, it is pun­ish­ingly long, fre­quently bor­ing, and woe­fully un­en­gag­ing at some of its most crit­i­cal mo­ments. It is too sub­dued for Scors­ese-philes, too vi­o­lent for the most de­vout, and too ab­struse for the great many moviegoers who such an ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing hopes to at­tract (which no doubt ex­plains why Scors­ese was com­pelled to cast "The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man" ac­tor An­drew Garfield and two "Star Wars" stars).

Still, viewed through the nar­row prism of films about faith, "Si­lence" is a re­mark­able achieve­ment, tack­ling as it does a num­ber of Big Questions in a medium that, ow­ing to its com­mer­cial na­ture, so of­ten shies away from Christianity al­to­gether. Con­sid­er­ing the dom­i­nant role re­li­gious be­lief plays in the lives of so many, it's sur­pris­ing, even scan­dalous, that so few films face the sub­ject head-on. "Si­lence" is the largest, most se­ri­ous-minded ex­am­i­na­tion of faith since Ter­rence Mal­ick's "The Tree of Life," round­ing out a tril­ogy on the sub­ject from the di­rec­tor of "Kun­dun" and "The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ".

At the core of "Si­lence" lies the dilemma: What does it mean to apo­s­ta­tize? Though the screen­play (which Scors­ese adapted with Jay Cocks, his col­lab­o­ra­tor on "The Age of In­no­cence" and "Gangs of New York") in­tends for us to con­sider this ques­tion on some deep tele­o­log­i­cal level, the film would do well to en­gage with it first in more lit­eral terms.

For those not al­ready versed in the finer points of Chris­tian dogma, "apostasy" is the act by which some­one re­nounces his faith, rep­re­sented in the par­tic­u­lar con­text of this film by plac­ing one's foot upon a fumi-e. Here, apostasy is the weapon by which 17th-cen­tury Ja­panese of­fi­cials, threat­ened by Euro­pean colo­nial pow­ers and the mis­sion­ary faith they brought with them, sought to com­bat the spread of Christianity among peas­ants re­cep­tive to the no­tion that their suf­fer­ing might be lifted in heaven.

In­sight

In Scors­ese's com­pa­ra­bly low-key "Kun­dun", the fu­ture Dalai Lama learns the Four No­ble Truths of Bud­dhist teach­ing. "What are the causes of suf­fer­ing?" his teacher asks, to which his pupil re­sponds, "Pride. Pride causes suf­fer­ing". This is a price­less in­sight, and one that Garfield's char­ac­ter, a pre­sump­tu­ous young "padre" named Se­bas­tiao Ro­drigues, might do well to learn. Though Ro­drigues imag­ines his great­est ob­sta­cle to be God's si­lence (he prays con­stantly, and yet He never re­sponds), the story hinges on the char­ac­ter's seem­ingly un­break­able ar­ro­gance - a di­men­sion sig­nif­i­cantly down­played in Garfield's self-ef­fac­ing per­for­mance. In­stead, the ac­tor fo­cuses on Ro­drigues' doubt, as re­flected in the dense clouds of fog and mist that per­me­ate much of the film.

If "Apoc­a­lypse Now" was a mod­ern twist on "Heart of Dark­ness," then "Si­lence" could fairly be viewed as Scors­ese's own take on that par­a­digm. Call it "Soul of Murk­i­ness." To­gether with an­other Por­tuguese priest, Fran­cisco Gar­rpe (Driver, who looks the part, his lean, an­gu­lar face re­flect­ing the sever­ity of clas­sic re­li­gious icons), Ro­drigues pe­ti­tions his Je­suit su­pe­rior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them travel to Ja­pan to in­ves­ti­gate the fate of their men­tor, fa­ther Cris­to­vao Fer­reira (Liam Nee­son) - who's ef­fec­tively the film's AWOL Kurtz. Their only clue is a long-de­layed let­ter, which tells of un­speak­able tor­ture prac­tices vis­ited upon Chris­tian priests and con­verts alike in an at­tempt to dis­cour­age the spread of the re­li­gion, cou­pled with ru­mors that Fer­reira ul­ti­mately apo­s­ta­tized and now lives with a wife as a Ja­panese.

For the sin­cerely de­vout Ro­drigues, the mis­sion rep­re­sents an op­por­tu­nity to do good, of­fer­ing sal­va­tion to the sav­ages, but also a shot at glory. He makes the jour­ney - which, in a two-hour-and-41-minute movie, passes in the blink of an eye in full aware­ness that he could be mar­tyred for his ac­tions. With mar­tyr­dom comes di­vine re­ward (in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of spe­cial vi­sions, a priv­i­leged place in heaven, and even­tual saint­hood), and in Endo's novel at least, he yearns for the op­por­tu­nity.

The re­al­ity that awaits Ro­drigues and Gar­rpe is ev­ery bit as hellish as they had imag­ined, and then some, and Scors­ese ren­ders these scenes of tor­ture - boil­ing water driz­zled over ex­posed flesh, women wrapped in straw and set on fire - with the same un­flinch­ing de­tach­ment Pier Paolo Pa­solini did the sadism of his in­fa­mous, in­cen­di­ary fi­nal film, "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom". And yet, Ro­drigues per­sists, con­sciously risk­ing his safety in order to lo­cate and serve the "Kakure Kirishi­tan" (or "hid­den Chris­tians"), who have been forced un­der­ground by these ter­ri­ble pun­ish­ments, in­quir­ing as to Fer­reira's where­abouts with each fresh en­counter.

The first Ja­panese the mis­sion­ar­ies en­counter is a wily ex-Chris­tian named Kichi­jiro (Yo­suke Kubozuka), whose sneaky, so­cial-out­cast be­hav­ior sug­gests the way Toshiro Mi­fune might play the role of Gol­lum. Kichi­jiro has apo­s­ta­tized once al­ready, and he will again be­fore the movie ends, re­peat­edly be­tray­ing his faith and re­turn­ing to beg for­give­ness. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the cast­ing of the Ja­panese char­ac­ters fa­vors ac­tors who look like ghoul­ish ex­ag­ger­a­tions - like the rude car­i­ca­tures found in

Tintin comics, their teeth and fin­ger­nails smeared in grime. Com­pared with the hu­manely de­picted na­tives of Roland Joffe's more con­ven­tion­ally ac­ces­si­ble/sat­is­fy­ing "The Mis­sion", the Ja­panese here come across as fright­en­ingly "other," al­most an­i­mal­is­tic. An un­nerv­ing in­quisi­tor named Inoue (Issey Ogata) has a wheedling voice and faux-gra­cious man­ner that sug­gests the Ja­panese equiv­a­lent of Christoph Waltz's Nazi colonel in "In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds".

This style of rep­re­sen­ta­tion marks a trou­bling, but no doubt de­lib­er­ate choice on Scors­ese's part - es­pe­cially com­pared with Garfield's bare-chested, fab­u­lously coiffed Ro­drigues. Un­der­scor­ing where our sym­pa­thies are ex­pected to lie, the mis­sion­ary out­siders all speak English (with wildly var­ied Por­tuguese ac­cents), while the com­pa­ra­bly hea­then lo­cals com­mu­ni­cate in sub­ti­tled Ja­panese. Un­like Endo's own big-screen adap­ta­tion of his novel, filmed by Ja­panese di­rec­tor Masahiro Shin­oda in 1971, here, the lo­cal be­comes the "other" - es­pe­cially since the sec­ond half of the film con­cerns the two priests' cap­tiv­ity and the sadis­tic at­tempts to con­vince them that Ja­pan is a "swamp" where their re­li­gion "does not take root".

Ro­drigues is pre­pared for mar­tyr­dom, but not for the Ja­panese in­quisi­tor's more di­a­bol­i­cal scheme, which in­volves tor­tur­ing other Chris­tians un­til he apo­s­ta­tizes. Worse still, Ro­drigues watches as his co­hort achieves the mar­tyr­dom he seeks (in a hor­rific beach­front scene that rings strangely hol­low). Through it all, Ro­drigues con­tin­ues his ap­peal to God, pray­ing for guid­ance, but re­ceiv­ing only ... si­lence. Un­til he doesn't.

Chal­leng­ing

The film's last hour is by far its most chal­leng­ing, as Scors­ese goes out of his way to avoid some of the sweep­ing, free-as­so­cia­tive tech­niques Mal­ick has in­no­vated for spir­i­tual cin­ema, turn­ing in­stead to the aus­tere model of Bres­son, Dreyer, and others that "Last Temp­ta­tion" screen­writer Paul Schrader once de­scribed as "tran­scen­den­tal cin­ema," in which pow­er­less pro­tag­o­nists strug­gle against forces be­yond their con­trol. Whereas Endo's novel al­lows om­ni­scient ac­cess to Ro­drigues' deep in­ter­nal con­flict, the film leaves au­di­ences at arm's length, forc­ing us to scru­ti­nize Garfield's face for psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sights that, for most, are too com­plex to ex­pect us to in­ter­pret on our own.

For non-be­liev­ers in par­tic­u­lar, when Nee­son resur­faces, his ar­gu­ments, in­tended as the cru­elest temp­ta­tion, will in­stead sound per­fectly log­i­cal. What Fer­reira de­scribes as "the most pow­er­ful act of love that has ever been per­formed" feels like a no-brainer, with no cathar­sis to ease the anti-cli­max. From the Cru­sades to the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion, when one con­sid­ers all the cru­elty that re­li­gion has ex­erted on the world, it seems al­most un­fair to fo­cus on this foot­note in world his­tory, where priests were pun­ished for their be­liefs, the way early Chris­tians were thrown to the lions.

And yet, these paradoxes surely aren't lost on Scors­ese, who has cre­ated a tax­ing film that will not only hold up to mul­ti­ple view­ings, but prac­ti­cally de­mands them. Here, as ever, he brings an ar­rest­ing vis­ual sense to the project, reteam­ing with pro­duc­tion de­signer Dante Fer­retti and DP Ro­drigo Pri­eto to cre­ate evoca­tive widescreen tableaux, shot on cel­lu­loid and shrouded in mist and shadow, while re­lax­ing some of his flashier tech­niques (with its Peter Gabriel score and ag­gres­sive cutting, "Last Temp­ta­tion" feels dated to­day in a way that the di­rec­tor clearly in­tends to avoid here).

What lit­tle mu­sic "Si­lence" does con­tain is fea­tured so faintly as to be al­most sub­lim­i­nal, leav­ing am­ple room for en­gaged au­di­ences to personalize the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, while frus­trat­ing those grasp­ing for clues as to the pre­cise emo­tional re­ac­tion Scors­ese in­tends. That's a risky move, as is the dra­matic way he breaks the si­lence in the end. Those who put their faith in Scors­ese may find it chal­lenged as never be­fore by his long-ges­tat­ing pas­sion project. — Reuters

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