Silence is very likely the most Catholic movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, which makes it very Catholic indeed — mega-Catholic, über-Catholic. It’s a real high mass of a film, done with high craft in the highest seriousness. I’m seriously divided on it, but ultimately I have to lean in its favor. I feel protective of it, as if it were a pencil sketch or a mandala. Pain and guilt radiate from every frame, alongside incongruous natural beauty. I’m not sure if it’s a work of art or a tract of instruction, and certainly it couldn’t be less interested in reflecting the concerns of the day or satisfying the commercial cravings of the day. Like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s timeless and placeless; its true milieu is inside Scorsese’s head.
The climate in Last Temptation was red and dusty; the one in Silence, 17th-century Japan, feels cold and wet, shot by master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in infinite gradations of blue and gray, yet never feeling desaturated. The mood is frightened but determined spirituality in the face of violent oppression. Christianity in this land is punishable by torture and death, unless the accused voluntarily steps on an image of Christ, thus signaling their renunciation of God, their apostasy. (We hear the word “apostatize” in this film about as often as we hear a certain other word in Scorsese’s gangster films.)
Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver), volunteer to sneak into Japan to look for their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is said to have apostatized. They find a blue, rainy place haunted by terrified Japanese Christians and the stone-faced samurai who hunt them. The problem with Scorsese’s alter egos in his movies about faith is that they, for him, are filled out with his own guilt and devotion. The rest of us may perceive these heroes as somewhat hollow, undefined. Andrew Garfield does what he can, but Rodrigues is drawn as a bit too much of a noble sufferer, only intermittently aware that his steadfast refusal to apostatize might have more to do with his pride than with any genuine love of God.
Fortunately, Scorsese acknowledges this, and throws some of our identification to a few of the Japanese characters. There’s Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas stand-in who’s also the mad fool of the piece, always moving between sacrifice and betrayal; or Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto, bad-boy director of Tetsuo the Iron Man and many others), a devout old Christian; or especially Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, whose voice is one of the most amazing purrs of self-satisfied evil I’ve ever heard in a movie). Given that the priests are so devoted to their faith they sometimes seem completely out of touch with reality, and given that Scorsese lets the Japanese have humor and complexity — humanity — I don’t think Silence can be waved off as white-saviorism. Scorsese sees the problem with all-or-nothing thinking on either side.
Technically, Silence is a Michelin three-star restaurant. Emotionally it’s impacted, uncertain; Scorsese never met a doubt he didn’t love to chew over. Sometimes it seems his real subject all along has been faith darkening into doubt and then brightening back towards faith, and on and on eternally. Paradise, says a woman in the film, is a place with no suffering and no work (and no taxes, she adds), but what kind of drama is that? As David Byrne said, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. For Scorsese, it’s all about the struggle, which for him is the tension between religious asceticism and the visceral, sensual pleasure he derives from cinema — watching it and making it. His movies about faith tend to end more or less happily because the end of a film means that a film has been made. The famous cliché about Scorsese is that the movie theater is his church and vice versa. Silence is an interiorized work surrounded by, almost mocked by, flesh-punishing yet ravishingly gorgeous nature. In that respect it’s as Catholic as the blood flowing through Scorsese’s veins and his emulsion.