Let’s not screw around here and start by laying some groundwork with a few declarative statements:
- Martin Scorcese is one of the most consistently excellent film-makers working today or, frankly, ever.
- His latest picture, Silence, is unabashedly masterful whether any given individual appreciates it or not.
- Silence has the most raging hard-on for Catholicism since The Passion of the Christ.
Well, to be fair, I’ve not seen Hacksaw Ridge yet (oh, hey Andrew Garfield, trending much?) but how about we split the difference and say ‘since Mel Gibson’s last feature’? Does that work? Great!
Apparently there’s a lot of conflict about that last point online. A lot of people don’t necessarily see it as a movie that is going out of its way to pimp Christianity and this is where my own takeaway becomes entirely convoluted. You might have to bear with me a second because it starts with the most important literary concept that everybody seems to forget when it comes to their own interpretations of a piece of art: Death of the author.
Actually, lets not undersell it…Death of the author is the most important literary concept, full stop. When you create something and put it out into the world, it doesn’t matter what you were trying to say because the entire point of art is that it is not beholden to its background or creators or…well, anything. That’s why I can still listen to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll, Part 2 despite the fact that Gary Glitter seems like a pretty terrible dude. Art does not exist independent of history or intent and a knowledge of background and context will inevitably influence any reading of a piece of media but good art should be able to function when such knowledge is absent. Or even when that knowledge is present, it doesn’t have to taint appreciation of work that’s put in front of you.
So how does death of the author apply to Silence?
Silence is a passion project from Martin Scorcese who, if you didn’t already know, is kinda all about that Catholic guilt. It’s the framework for everything he’s ever worked on and there’s not a film he’s made which doesn’t seem shot through that lens. If you take a look at his most personal movie, Mean Streets, you’ll see that dealing with Catholic guilt in the (then) modern Bronx is pretty much all that movie is about, nevermind that he’s the same visual virtuoso who then went on to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Martin Scorcese is Catholic as fuck.
The twist in the tail is thus: None of that matters. Or at least not insofar as my own reading of the movie.
Spoilers for Silence start here…
Sure, I could look at it through that very narrow lens of the director being big on the religion that’s at the heart of the movie. And when you do it’s fascinating because you very quickly understand that there’s no way that Scorcese is the sort of blindly devout follower that give religion a bad name. Through the Japanese inquisitors Scorcese asks very difficult questions of Christianity and its place in the world both ethically and geographically. Can it form in Japan, should it form in Japan, was it all worth it? A lot of people are reading into the final sequence of the picture as determining that the message of the movie is “Yes, it was all worth it.” and if you take Scorcese’s faith at face value, that makes sense. However, I think if that’s your reading you’ve kind of missed the point of the entire picture and why this is a film that needed to come out at some point in the past 20 years.
It’s not a film about Christianity, it’s a film about fundamentalism.
We learn at the end of the movie that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and Padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) never truly gave up on their faith and lived in serenity amongst the Japanese people until their deaths. I can’t see this as a betrayal of their apostasy because their apostasy was never suggested as being brought on by a lack of faith. These are characters whose faith is so strong, so core to their being that I couldn’t see any way that they would ever cease to believe in their Lord. They can bemoan His silence and curse His trials but they will forever still believe. Their sin is not their belief but a lack of respect for this life in favour of the life eternal which follows. When Ferrira and Rodrigues apostatise they do so to end the suffering of others, something they could have done at any point but refused to do previously out of ‘devotion’ to their Lord God.
This is all that the Japanese really wanted, at least as far as the narrative of the movie is concerned. How many times are we shown the Japanese remarking that the ceremony of planting a foot upon the image of Jesus is ‘just a formality’? The Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) and his entourage don’t especially care where their subjects place their faith and they don’t care about what the Portugese foreigners believe, they simply want it to be a personal affair rather than a mission. Sure, it’s fair to note that their methods are particularly brutal and savage but they are exposing a lack of respect that the missionaries have for their own customs, namely the Japanese respect for nature. How many poverty-stricken farmers did Priests watch die for their cause, knowing that at any time those victims could denounce God only to repent later.
The voice of Jesus speaking to Rodrigues appears to be a point of particular contention with some but it strikes me as a hallucination, much as earlier he believed he saw Jesus’ face transplanted onto his own in a reflection. He’s been beaten, starved, drawn out to exhaustion, berated by his teacher and exposed to levels of suffering he could not have dreamt of. The words he hears are not the word of God but his own internal justification filtered through the image of God. He’s not strong enough to make a choice and so he tricks himself by assigning the choice to a higher power.
Eventually Rodrigues lets go of his fundamentalism and decides that not everybody must believe as he does. The Japanese are content. He lives until he dies, an old man. Nobody suffers.
This is why it makes sense to me that Scorcese has been trying to make Silence for the past 20 years. We’re living in a time of dangerous fundamentalism and it shouldn’t need explaining that we have been for quite some time. Up until recently it’s been vary easy to blame others for this: the terrorists, the middle-east, the DPRK and so-on but it feels apt that Silence was finally released now. Fundamentalism has crept into our own Western society. It’s running rampant in our politics and whilst we’re seeing that pay off in certain conservative circles, it’s worth noting that the reason for that likely falls upon liberal fundamentalism which is just as strong.
The message of the movie isn’t the final shot, it’s a conversation between Rodrigues and an interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). Both try to explain their ideologies but neither try to listen, each even going so far to accuse the other of not paying attention in spite of their own shortcomings. I don’t think Scorcese ever intended for Silence to be much more than a means of expressing his own convoluted feelings about his religion (as noted previously, ultimately he comes out on the side of faith) but released today, it doesn’t matter. It means so much more for anyone willing to listen…willing to listen to art, to the world and to other people.