Decades upon decades passed before Martin Scorsese was able to finally finish Silence, his adaptation of Shûsaku Endô’s beloved tome, and that was likely for the better when all is said and done. Masahiro Shinoda, the master Japanese filmmaker behind Pale Flower and Double Suicide, was 40 when he first adapted the novel in 1971, right in the middle of what would turn out to be an immensely fruitful career; his most recent film was released in 2003. Shinoda’s take on the material is alluringly naturalistic, evocative, and admirably restrained, but there’s no pain to the film, no essence of the human toll or the true faith of the two Jesuit priests who traverse Japan in search for the mentor. It’s a film about faith made by someone who cannot see, or fails to convey, the encompassing, obsessive nature of religious faith.
Shinoda’s film also has a certain romanticism for the Japanese land, an awe-struck love for the natural beauty of the seaside terrain, rolling, verdant hills, and the busy towns and domiciles that are visited. In contrast, Scorsese and DP Rodrigo Prieto make the terrain of Japan feel overwhelming to Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, as if the long grass and rocky mountainsides were swallowing them up. Prieto worked with Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street to make the excesses of the obscenely wealthy feel equally thrilling and astonishingly ludicrous, and here, he sees the beauty of the region without betraying the ever-present element of mortal danger in simply being on the land.
It’s not that Silence couldn’t have been made before The Wolf of Wall Street or even before Shutter Island. This was not some year ordained by prophecy to be the year the director made this movie. The grave stakes and moral contemplation at the center of Endô’s source material, the consideration of the highly arguable use of religion, will only bloom with a particularly tested understanding of human behavior. It’s been long-held that Shakespeare’s Macbeth should neither be directed nor led in performance by a young artist for a variety of reasons, some legitimate and others almost superstitious. That’s the kind of feeling that the story of Silence gives off, and Scorsese now seems distinctly capable of expressing the depth of his own ideas in tandem with those that Endô originally conceived.
The marks of a strict Catholic upbringing can be spotted in myriad forms in Scorsese’s films. About a fifth of the way through GoodFellas, Lorraine Bracco’s Karen insists that Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill hide a cross, in order to make a good impression on her devoutly Jewish mother. The hiding of the image, from the mark of Jesus Christ, allows for subversions and slights against his tenants and beliefs. When Karen hides that image from her mother, she’s essentially vindicating the onslaught of lies that Henry will enact to make his life and, by extension, her life as comfortable, luxurious, and carefree as possible. In Silence, it’s metal plates and molds of the image of the Christ that must be stepped on or expectorated upon by Japanese Christians to apostatize in front of their wealthy, cruel persecutors, led by Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata). One cannot expel belief from the mind or the heart but the forbidding of any of its iconography or symbolism, to punish even the hint of its physical or verbal exercises and teachings, can stem the tide noticeably.
Unlike Shinoda’s adaptation, Scorsese is adamant about also showing the physical toll of the Inquisitor’s tortures and fatal punishments. Other than the priests and the Inquisitor, the most important character in Scorsese’s take is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a self-banished Japanese Christian who guides Rodrigues and Garrpe from China to Japan and through a variety of townships leading to Nagasaki, the center of all religious persecution in Japan. In Shinoda’s take, we only hear of the brutal fate of Kichijiro’s family after they refused to apostatize, whereas Scorsese shows the young man’s brothers and sisters being burned at the stake for their refusal. The destruction of the body as a sort of penance for denying the rules of national order, and national religion, has direct parallels to the teachings of Catholicism, where bodily harm is often seen as the way towards salvation.
The body is also a tool of holy forgiveness and sin in Raging Bull, which tells the infamous story of New York City brute and heavyweight champion Jake LaMotta, as played by Robert De Niro in one of his most adventurous and punishing performances. As depicted by Scorsese in dreamy, luxurious black-and-white, the boxing matches that LaMotta survives are a realm for his own personal glory but also a place for him to receive punishment for his violence, jealousy, and aggression outside of the ring. When he’s overcome by regret or anger, LaMotta is as likely to beat himself up, to bloody and scar his knuckles on a brick wall, as he is to hurt someone else, whether it be his brother (Joe Pesci) or his wife (Catherine Moriarty).
In Silence, however, the destruction of the body is not a matter of self-sacrifice but rather the sacrifices of the poor and devout. For much of Scorsese’s film, Rodrigues and Garrpe are separated, and when Rodrigues is taken in as a special project for the Inquisitor, it’s his flock that suffers the backlash of his perceived insolence. In the first town, believers are tied tightly to crosses on the rocky bay and left up until their bodies give up or they drown in the high tide; later, they are rolled into straw mats and thrown into the ocean to drown slowly. Beheadings and burnings are also regular, as is a practice of repeatedly pouring boiling water over those who refuse to renounce. Here, Scorsese’s political fury and skepticism against the politics of the church are seen as clear as day and they can also be seen when Rodrigues encounters a former Catholic who has turned Buddhist for survival. The trick is that Scorsese neither makes belief in God look expressly idiotic nor does he make them seem particularly blessed or special in the scheme of things.
One of the great mysteries of Scorsese’s film is whether Kichijiro’s guilt is, as he surmises, connected to sullying the image or connected more to the more earthly guilt of being unable to save his family or the pestering phantom of survivor’s remorse that seems to be at play. Scorsese puts a lot of effort into constantly reaffirming and denying the effectiveness or importance of the pageantry of Catholicism, from its images to prayer itself. At one point, Rodrigues sees his reflection turn into an image of Jesus, and one could see that as a holy message from the lord almighty. However, the fact that this moment is followed directly by his capture by the guards of the Inquisitor suggests that it might have also been madness, foolishness, or, worst of all, hubris. After all, what priest would be so cocky as to believe his suffering is equal to that of His Only Son?
Unlike almost any other modern film made about Catholicism, the acts of being a believer gives no one in Silence the tint of heroism or select wisdom. To be a believer in Scorsese’s world is to be constantly questioning the existence of an almighty and yet feeling the personal connection and urgency of its message anyway. In other words, it’s to be at peace with the fact that you may be crazy or a fool and to neither be wounded nor given particular pride in that realization. In this particular perspective, the film’s closest cousin in Scorsese’s filmography is his overlooked, outstanding Bringing Out the Dead, in which a demented ambulance medic (Nicolas Cage) attempts to find meaning in his work again. As with Garfield’s stressed and tortured priest, Cage’s medic sees no proof of the good he’s doing in attempting to save those who often seem to want to die, if only for the presumed paradise that lies on the other side. In both cases, the struggle to keep something like faith alive is ultimately portrayed as almost entirely personal, a dubious otherworldly calling distilled down to a series of psychological impulses married with a nod toward the uncontrollably metaphysical.
To refuse to give any of these characters a moralistic leg up takes tremendous restraint and yet Silence never feels hesitant in the turns of its story or in the building of its analysis of belief. That’s where the elements of wisdom, age, and experience come in. Scorsese’s faith makes him neither a better nor more holy man than anyone else, it just happens to fit with his own personal psychology and perspective. And in his use of images as a reflection of holiness, he makes a connection to his own life as a creator of images, who has enjoyed a tremendously privileged life due to the perceived importance of these images to the populace. As such, Silence is the metaphysical twin to The Wolf of Wall Street, which more directly questioned the plausibility of a career centered around raising enough money to buy or rent a lot of expensive nonsense, which could also encapsulate the working life of a Hollywood producer or filmmaker.
Silence is reflective of a very personal and challenging strain of religious belief, and it’s interesting to note that Garfield has starred in two Oscar-ready stories about faith as a cultural disrupter, the other one being Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. It’s worth noting that where Silence shows the arguable culpability of the priests as much as the Inquisitor’s cadre in the victimization of Japanese Christians, Hacksaw Ridge only sees Garfield’s Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist wartime medic who refused to carry a gun, as a victim of military machismo and governmental order. In Gibson’s view, the religious man must survive the beatings of the ignorant in order to selflessly save them from themselves, and his peaceful message is overwhelmed by the exhilarating chaos of bloody, horrific war. In contrast, violence in Silence is haunting and unforgiving, marked by pain, exhaustion, and the cold indifference of the natural world. There’s nothing grandiose or sentimental about the way that Scorsese’s Christians die, whereas brutal unbelievers are the reason that many of Gibson’s lovable soldiers meet savage ends so early in life. It’s unlikely that age will change Gibson’s inability to see the humanism in a perceived enemy, but for a director as preternaturally thoughtful as Scorsese, becoming older has allowed him to see outside himself and within himself with a shattering sense of moral honesty.