Directed by Martin Scorsese
Occasionally a major studio film will surface that asks inscrutable questions, enveloping its answers into intangible moments that don’t sing or scream but quietly stare into you.
The last studio picture that comes to mind was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. That was nearly five years ago. Today we have Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Both took over a quarter of a century to come into fruition, both offer the monumental prospects of seasoned directors fighting into their twilight years, and both happen to surround themselves with the questions around God.
God as Man is a repeated theme in Scorsese’s work, whether it’s Jordan Belfort being worshipped by his league of greedy young “pond scum” in The Wolf of Wall Street or Howard Hughes soaring through the Heavens in The Aviator or Jake LaMotta being crucified in the ring in Raging Bull.
But the subject around the responsibility of being God is never quite deliberated like it is through Andrew Garfield’s character of Father Rodrigues in Silence. A man who, despite being stripped away of everything he is, remains somehow intact.
Silence is essentially Scorsese also stripped away of the aesthetic panache to which he’s built his cult following around. No frenetic cuts, no colourful or outlandish characters, no offbeat visual trademarks, and no inundation of sound design.
With the exception of the subject matter and first person voiceover, this film feels distinctly un-Scorsese.
When going to camera for the film, Scorsese’s cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto spoke of this minimalism:
“From the beginning, we talked about the restraints in terms of shooting. Marty is known for his elaborate cinematic language; designing complex shots comes naturally to him. He felt this story required a simpler language.”
What strikes me the most about Silence is its quiet sensibility of a bygone era of cinema, where directors didn’t draw roadmaps for you (even this year’s brilliant Toni Erdmann and The Salesman are comparatively perspicuous in their morality), when moments could breathe and where characters are truly challenged as is their audience. This confidence (or is it arrogance?) is markedly absent in filmmaking today.
It was this calm, rational style which distinguished Japanese cinema from the overly expressive European and North American cinema around the same time.
While American and European directors (sans Bergman or Dreyer) like Ophüls and Wilder were compelled to cram as much dialogue and camera trickery into a single frame, Mizoguchi and Ozu were producing films built on a type of objective minimalism.
This trend continued. American films became louder and commanded the senses with ostentatious authority. In 1993, after Scorsese sent a cut of Age of Innocence to Akira Kurosawa upon completion, Kurosawa wrote back:
“I must caution you. I must admonish you on the use of music. Like all Hollywood films, you’re using music too much.”
Silence is not only a letter back to the long-passed Master of Japanese cinema, possessing almost no music throughout, it is a love letter to all of Japanese cinema.
It bears the fingerprints of other past masters: the obsession over the perfect Ozu master shots, the Mizoguchian use of dissipating mist, the jump cuts from medium to close-ups that Kurosawa famously employed, the quizzical and unwavering focus of lower-class society Imamura longed for, the haunting tall reeds that shroud the close-ups in Shindo’s Onibaba, the explicit criticism of militaristic tyranny within Masaki Kobayashi’s work and of course the brutal slaughtering confined brilliantly within the wide 2:35 frames of Masahiro Shinoda, the director who first adapted Silence in 1971.
It is Scorsese as something he is not, adopting the style and etiquette of a far off land and bringing it into the West in hopes of transforming a few people.
One might argue that this film is at conflict with itself in that its form is of the East, but its story is of the West. But that would be a gross injustice to the nature of the film because in the same breath, you find the echoes of brilliant compositions found in John Ford’s The Searchers.
Also found throughout are the intimate moments between Garrpe and Rodrigues which mirror those of John Wayne and Montgomery Cliff in the seminal Red River by Howard Hawks, a film about a pilgrimage of its own.
One scene has Father Rodrigues and Garrpe escaping the confines of their cabin, a safe haven, only to find sight of yes that’s right, a Hawk floating effortlessly in the sky. They refer to him as a sign of “God,” just as Kurosawa spotted the Westerns of America and later openly worshipped John Ford.
This fostering of the Western approach to cinema polarized directors within Japan. By the 1970s, directors like Oshima criticized Kurosawa, “That Kurosawa had brought Japanese film to a Western audience meant that he must be pandering to Western values and politics.” (Wild, 80).
Was there a dissolution, a watering down of one’s true Japanese identity by pairing the two styles?
The freedom to worship is at the root of this story and I think is the reason why this film will resonate for many years to come. It’s been hundreds of years since the Japanese forced their Christian converts to silence and apostasy. But has much changed?
Just this past week, we’ve been subject to zealous anti-immigration laws that force newcomers to disavow their faith if they want to live peacefully within the United States and a white supremacist who opened fire at a Mosque in Quebec.
Remaining silent in the name of religious prosecution is a mainstay for any Draconian establishment to wield power. It’s how Inoue (Issei Ogata) keeps civil obedience in his villages. He just asks that they “step on their Jesus,“ ensuring them that it’s a mere “formality.” That is unless they want to be hung upside down and bled out.
Intolerance is the common quality to any major power’s treatment of their adversaries. It is how they justify censorship or worse, the execution of the infidel.
This is why Silence is important to me. Within its narrative, you don’t find a regaling thesis on colonialism, but rather a story that wrestles with the ideas of tolerance, mercy and acceptance.
The schism of beliefs studied in the film are beautifully married, rendering any distinction between the styles indistinguishable. One doesn’t know who Scorsese is lifting his values from. Is it the spiritual conquest of a Rossellini film or an exercise in the masochism which predominates the work of Oshima?
After watching it for the third time, someone told me, “It’s like a conversation between Jesus and the Buddha.”
Or maybe a disagreement. Whatever the case, the conversation can exist and film can offer an open dialogue between two variant philosophies, while respecting both.
Despite Inoue’s horrendous accounts of murder and torture, Scorsese’s portrayal of this “smiling Buddha” dictator begs us to empathize with his cause and despite Rodrigues’ selfless martyrdom, asks us if it’s truly as magnanimous as it appears.
Nothing in Silence is as it appears.
There’s an unparalleled sensitivity to this work in its performances, its pace, its camerawork, even its lighting. I’d like to rhapsodize for one moment about just how subtle and nuanced Prieto’s cinematography is in this film. Watch the eye-lights in the characters eyes throughout the film. Watch how masterfully Prieto isolates one eye from another by simply blocking the light or how he makes them gleam and shine when Rodrigues cries amidst the burning bodies.
These subdued and deliberate choices is evidence of a master in full stride who, despite his self-imposed limitations, is but redefining his visual flare in the minutiae.
The performances of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are tremendous in their quietness. Starved of faith and food, they delicately portray these Jesuit priests with the cadence of a Handel concerto and their expressive eyes are something out of a Goya painting.
These are not the “oscar-bait” performances famous for forcing sympathy from their viewers. In fact, this story makes difficult any sympathy given their mission. Liam Neeson’s twenty minutes of screen-time could be the very best performance of the year. It’s chilling, deceptive and utterly convincing.
Given the moral ambiguity of the piece, its operatic pace, its asking to sympathize with colonial forces, and its conception of God, it comes to no surprise to me that it took Scorsese 28 years to produce and it comes as even less of a surprise that its having troubles finding its audience.
As the third act closes, Rodrigues’ hopeless pilgrimage prophetically mirrors Scorsese’s own at this juncture in his filmmaking career.
Does the audience want to accept his Gospel of “true cinema”? Has cinema been polluted over years, travelling further and further from “pure cinema”? Can younger generations flourish in this “poisoned soil” of blockbusters and sequels? Or is it all a narcissistic endeavour, an imposition of his “truth” in a world that seems to have already found it?
Just when we think we have the answer within the chambers of Rodrigues’ starved mind, the fog delicately dances into frame and all that’s left is the deafening burden of silence. Cut to black.
But then…some crickets.