Martin Scorsese's Silence (2017) is fantastically powerful. When the film ends, the audience sits dumbstruck. The press has done everything possible to make this film unavailable to most people -- they have praised the movie in terms that make no one want to see it. But, in fact, it seems to me that some few brave souls are venturing forth to see this picture -- I attended a matinee on Thursday in Rochester, Minnesota, and there were, at least, 15 people in the auditorium. For a film as uncompromising as Silence, this counts as something like success.
In simplest terms, Scorsese's movie is an extended meditation on two related subjects: martyrdom and the role of suffering in the world. The film's Christian aspect is developed through the movie's subtle, and philosophically acute, consideration of martyrdom -- a "martyr" is a witness to the power of Christ and the film obsessively considers what it means to be such a witness. This is the film's overt meaning and Scorsese does not turn away from the implications of his material. The movie is dedicated to the Christians of Japan ad majorem deus, and I think this tribute is authentic and without any admixture of irony. On a more universal level, the film addresses a fundamental dilemma that afflicts all religious people --why does God permit suffering? And, more importantly, why does God not answer the fervent prayers for deliverance directed to him. The film's title, Silence invokes these issues and, indeed, the concept of "silence" is intrinsic to the movie's long and serene coda -- the apostate priest never mentions Jesus Christ again after betraying his faith and lives, ostensibly, as a Buddhist. But what does the priest's silence, his refusal to mention Jesus or the Father and Holy Spirit mean? Is it negation or, perhaps, like the silence of God that crucifies men upon the anguish of their own doubt, a passion that, somehow, justifies God's ways to men?
Scorsese directs this film, a lifelong project for him, without any trace of ostentation -- there are no flashy shots or montages, nothing merely picturesque, although many scenes in the film are profoundly beautiful. He doesn't estheticize the violence (as he does in his gangster pictures). The horrors are shot in lucid documentary style that neither emphasizes nor renders melodramatic the suffering depicted. Indeed, at the film's climax, we don't see any of the tortured moving or crying out --their horrific plight is rendered abstractly, as a philosophical dilemma. (Scorsese can use restraint in this way because he has earlier, and throughout the film, made us vividly aware of the hideous and tangible details of the tortures inflicted upon the Christians.) Much of the film takes place in open air, along the rugged sea coasts and in the mountains of Japan and Scorsese seems to have studied John Ford in his depiction of the natural world -- mists and rain and wild seascapes are shone to us, not as arenas for the depiction of the sublime in the landscape, but instead as locales, places, theaters of human suffering. The most ferocious images of torture occur in the film's first ten minutes -- Christians are being crucified in a hell of hot sulfur springs and their bodies are bathed in scalding water scooped for the boiling volcanic fumaroles. Everything is shrouded in boiling mist, but we can see enough to horrify us and, this explains the apostasy of the priest, Father Ferrara, played by Liam Neeson. Throughout the film, Scorsese shows that the most terrible suffering arises from representation -- that is, the idea that the Japanese inquisitor subjects Christians to lethal torture entirely because their priest will not renounce Christ. The fundamental moral problem that the film presents is this: I may have the right to be stubborn, stand on principle, and allow myself to be tortured; but do I have the right to inflict those tortures on others -- in other words, can I legitimately make my steadfast faith a basis for the horrible death of others?
The film's premise is simple enough and terrible. A Portuguese priest is rumored to have become an apostate. Once there were over 300,000 baptized Christians in Japan, but the imperial inquisitor is rooting out the heresy and slaughtering the faithful. Two young men, acting against their superior's advice, travel to Japan in search of the lost priest said to have abandoned his God. For the first hour, the film follows something of the narrative of a quest movie like Apocalypse Now -- the two priests land on the stormy, rock-girt coast of Japan, are harbored in underground catacomb-like caves by local Christians, but, then, are separated and both, ultimately, captured by Grand Inquisitor. The more dogmatic of the young priest dies trying to prevent Japanese Christians from being drowned in the sea. The more flexible priest, a young man who has argued that martyrdom is unnecessary and that the Japanese Christians have every right to deny their God in order to save their lives, finds himself imprisoned by the inquisitor. A series of gripping philosophical debates occurs and, then, at last, the youthful priest is brought face-to-face with the apostate Father Ferrara. Several more long dialogues ensue and, then, at last, the young priest is faced with the ultimate decision -- deny Christ and save his disciples from hideous, painful death or allow the faithful to be killed as a result of his obduracy. The sequences offering the choice between inflicting martyrdom on others or denying Christ are a master-class in film-making -- the moral dilemma is filmed in a way that is absolutely clear, staggering, and horrific. No single shot stands out, but the entire episode is lacerating, an awful experience for the audience that is, nonetheless, not so unbearable that we look away or resent the imagery imposed upon us. Scorsese is a past-master of filming violence and he finds the exact level of horror that the audience can tolerate without feeling exploited or distracted from the moral and philosophical problems that the film dramatizes. Any more gore and the film would collapse into something like a splatter film; any less gore and we might be indifferent to the stakes at issue. Scorsese finds the exact level of terror and fear that the audience can sustain, and, indeed, sustain over almost three hours -- if the film were more awful, no one could watch it. If the horrors were less real and tangible, the moral questions presented by the movie would not seem as consequential as they are.
Scorsese's approach to Silence is fundamentally sacramental. The movie presents the same awful choice over and over again -- people are told to trample on an image of Christ or the Virgin. The inquisitor and his men advise that this is merely a formality, an act showing allegiance to the Japanese order that doesn't require the assent of belief. But it is a gesture that is decisive -- some live and some die when faced with the choice and, of course, the audience is constantly faced with the question of how we would act if confronted with the same decision. Imagery showing a brass or copper icon pressed down in the mud and offered to be stepped upon occurs over and over again. Similarly, the tortured priest is required to shrive, again and again, a Japanese man who has proven to be a Judas -- again and again, the man betrays the Christians and, each time, returns to them and pleads to confess his sins and be forgiven them. This motif in the film would be comical if the movie's general aspect were not so dire. Scorsese's direction emphasizes ritualistic encounters that occur over and over again, sacramental gestures that are repeated as if in a dream. The director is sublimely unafraid to repeat himself and, in many ways, the entire movie simply loops again and again around the martyrdom depicted in the opening sequence -- as in Kundun, the very absence of any action advancing away from the fundamental plight suffered by the characters is, itself, a gesture of almost Bressonian renunciation. (It should also be noted that in films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese developed a technique of incorporating voice-over into the action of a film -- this talent is on display in Silence; the film's use of voice-over, including voices that are divine, is continuously brilliant and technically innovative.)
The acting in Silence is beyond reproach. The movie is worth seeing, and suffering through, merely on the basis of the performance of the Japanese inquisitor -- speaking in an eerie high-pitched voice, the inquisitor is very essence of reason; he's like a Buddhist Voltaire. And, yet, the horrors that he inflicts upon the Christians bespeak some kind of intrinsic savagery or sadism, a sadism that is all the more effective because we never see any trace of it. Exemplary is an early sequence of Christians being crucified at high tide -- the waves smash against the mostly naked men pinioned to their crosses in the stormy twilight. Scorsese films some of this crucifixion from a sea cave where the grand inquisitor sits impassively, silent himself, observing like the lens of a camera the tortures that he has inflicted.
Silence is an ordeal -- it is almost three hours although the film is so fraught with terror and suspense that the audience is never bored. But there is no doubt that the film is an ordeal -- but its one to which, I think, serious filmgoers should subject themselves.