Silence (2016)

Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Andrew Garfield, Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka

Spoilers ahead.

Father Rodrigues (Garfield), over the course of the film, witnesses shocking humiliation, torture, and execution. Apostasy is the least of these after a while, almost passe in the misty mountains, immaculate sand, and lovely greens of one of the most hostile environments seen in a recent film. In almost all cases apostasy is expressed wordlessly, for all that is required of someone to reject Christianity is to step on some image of Jesus. (In one scene a second step is added: spit on a crucifix and say that Mary is a whore. The only character in the scene who does that actually gets away with just the spitting and without the denunciation of Mary, maintaining the essential quiet aspect of the declaration.) As much as that obviously tortures the Christians of Japan, the physical tortures are breathtakingly slow. In the first scene of the movie, friars are put on crosses while their tormentors drip water from the boiling springs on their bodies. Narration tells us that those friars underwent that torture daily for more than a month. Even more terrifying is a torture in which the subject is wrapped in a sheet, tied up, and held upside down over a pit. The blood seeps slowly through an incision in the neck so that one dies agonizingly slowly. This segues neatly into other methods of execution: being placed on a cross in the way of the tides and left there until drowned or dehydrated, beheading, being burned alive, tying people in mats and dropping them in the ocean so they’ll drown. With the exception of immolation, all of those tortures and executions are done for one reason: make the priests in Japan apostatize. By eliminating the priests’ power, Christianity will die out in Japan of malnourishment. The word that Ferreira (Liam Neeson) uses for Japan is “swamp,” which is not necessarily negative so much as it a statement about what happens when something as big and new as Christianity tries to place itself in an environment where it will struggle to grow.

Obviously, this is the effective strategy for eliminating Christianity than whatever it is the Romans tried to do. By creating martyrs from average citizens, the Romans accidentally fanned the flames of religious passion and created cults of personality lasting through the 17th Century, when Silence is set, all the way through to the present day. By destroying the living symbols of religious authority, the priests, the Japanese give the lie to the religious authority of Christianity. And what they realize by the time Rodrigues and Garupe (Adam Driver) arrive on the island is that literal destruction of the priests is something that they are all too ready to accept. Throughout the film, Rodrigues and Garupe try to deflect the danger of the common Japanese citizens onto themselves; in interactions with government officials or executioners, they cry out to be executed or tortured instead. And why not? These priests have spent their lives building up enough faith to prepare for the glorious martyrdom which will earn them a one-way ticket to Paradise, where God will greet them as ones who have done well. Even aside from that – even when Rodrigues has a difficult time hearing the voice of God anymore – there’s the great decency that the priests have. Aside from their arrogance (the translator, played by Asano, remarks on the arrogance of the priests after just a minute or two with Rodrigues), there’s no question that the priests are deeply humane. Even if they were not priests, they would be unable to bear the suffering inflicted on others because of them. “All you have to do to make it stop,” the inquisition coos, “is apostatize. Isn’t that would Christ would do? Wouldn’t he stop their pain?” It is an absolutely unanswerable question, one that is hammered home again and again throughout a film that, yes, is long, but no, is not overlong.

It’s not a direct comparison between the two films, although they have more in common thematically than one would guess at first glance, but watching Silence I was put in mind of The Emigrants. Could we have gotten the point with half an hour cut out? Probably. Does that extra half-hour pound us into submission, put us in the mind of the characters, make us feel every bump of the road and every tribulation with increasing weariness? A film that can erode its viewer is by definition powerful; a film that feels endless in the way that Silence feels endless about halfway through, or the way that The Emigrants feels endless on the boat to America, is about endurance. I don’t mind at all that a film about stamina, about desperate attempts to push forward despite insuperable obstacles, forces a viewer to take up that same feeling. It’s when films which do not make stamina or ordinary people being pushed beyond their capabilities into central ideas of the film that I get frustrated. Just to push this home a little bit (because I’m sort of annoyed at the strand of reviews of this film that have gotten caught up in the length of a film which is, credits through credits, 161 minutes long), Scorsese has a habit of making long movies. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long, and does not need to be that long. Casino outlasts Silence by more than fifteen minutes, and absolutely should not have been anywhere near as long. Gangs of New York, my favorite movie through all of college and still one of the movies I hold dearest, is 167 minutes and takes forever to get through it. Those three movies are overlong because their plots are bloated. The plot is not bloated in Silence; what we’re staying for is a searing portrait of a man whose instincts, learning, and experience are fighting with each other and can only realistically change him within a certain run time. When that’s the reason a film feels long, that’s just fine with me.

Silence peddles in unanswerable questions, and wisely refrains from making outright villains of any of the figures in the film. Rodrigues, Garupe, and Ferreira are, from one perspective (and honestly the more compelling perspective), pre-imperialists whose goal is to obliterate one culture and replace it with a new one, a Eurocentric culture in which they are the arbiters of right and wrong and, incidentally, Heaven and Hell. It’s also hard to deny that they are eminently well-meaning. At one point in the film, where Rodrigues tells Inoue (Issey Ogata) that Japan ought to enter a monogamous relationship, Inoue assumes that the priest means with Portugal, the land of his birth. No, Rodrigues says, not quite beaming (no one does that in this movie), but smiling. He means Christianity, and he really does mean it. There’s a line of thought I’ve encountered many times in contemporary mainstream Protestantism which makes faith into something innocuous; evangelism is reduced to giving people something which is better than what they have now. How strange that Rodrigues manages to sit before Inoue and make that kind of claim when he has already witnessed the Christians’ privations and fears and executions, and more than that, wondered about the kind of God who tests his people beyond their limits to no clear purpose, and the God who is strangely silent when anyone asks why.

These are the kind of questions at the film’s heart: if God is there, then where, exactly, is he? if God loves these people, why does he make them suffer without any sign of his charity? why is he making them suffer anyway? is it better to renounce God and save others than to keep one’s declarations of faith and let them die? The way that the film poses the questions is largely situational and repetitive. It’s pointless to throw myself at it, since these are personal questions; it is more interesting to watch the film and work with those questions than it is to bounce around them on a blog.

Out of the three priests in Japan, two of them apostatize and one dies. Ferreira is reported to have apostatized even before Rodrigues and Garupe, his proteges on Macau, go out looking for him. The rumors are true, and Ferreira turns out to be the man who manages to talk Rodrigues up to his breaking point until Jesus, presumably, does the rest. (More on that in a sec.) Garupe is the lucky one. During one particularly difficult scene, the one where people are drowned, we cannot take much from Garupe’s perspective; our understanding of the situation is mostly provided by the translator, hissing in Rodrigues’ ear on the beach. Garupe has been captured, has been told that Rodrigues has apostatized (which is not true), and has been told that some Christians will be drowned if he does not follow suit. Garupe is distraught, wading out into the water as the Japanese Christians are dumped into the ocean. “Take me instead!” he cries. He swims out, desperate to do what he can; he reaches one woman in time to try to force her back up to the surface, but the men on the boat have the drop on them. Both the woman and Garupe drown, but how fortunate Garupe is in comparison with his friend. He dies with his faith unbroken, given that slightest leeway to die a martyr’s death; he does not have to sit in prison cells, relentlessly wondering if God is there. Rodrigues never gets that opportunity.

It would be tempting to say that this movie is going to be Garfield’s Gangs of New York, his opportunity to remake himself as an actor after a critically lauded performance (in The Social Network) and some time in the wilderness as the star of an action franchise (Spider-Man) and tabloid fodder (his relationship with Emma Stone). The comparison to DiCaprio isn’t quite right; the boy is too old, for one thing, Garfield has never had the kind of reach or name recognition that the young DiCaprio had, and alas, I doubt that he’ll ever be the actor that DiCaprio is. This is still an excellent role for Garfield, who is at his best playing someone earnest, innocent. As he creeps towards his forties, I’m curious to see how that will play out. Rodrigues, despite his many doubts which flow quickly, is mostly an optimist. He seems convinced that he will find Ferreira, rescue or help or, if necessary, bring him back to the fold, and in the meantime do good for the Japanese Christians. It’s only at the end of the movie, once he has received leave from God to step on the depiction of Jesus, that he fails to do any of those things. The message he hears says, interestingly, that much of the point of Jesus is to share the pain of men, that indeed that is what he came to Earth to do. It appears to be the last push that Rodrigues needs – a push that saves the lives of five apostatized Christians from dying, hung over the pit – although one hardly needs to be a non-Christian to wonder exactly where that very convenient voice came from. Garfield plays this part of the film, as he plays most of it, with open emotion and feeling. He is not a gritty actor or one who tries to play tough. Rodrigues more than anything else is passionate in the way that young men without too much experience tend to be passionate, and Garfield plays impulsive, tearful, grateful, and beaten with equal aplomb. Perhaps some of it is overacted, a little less subtle than the performances of Asano or Neeson or Driver. Garfield’s lack of subtlety is fitting for the role; struggling with one’s faith can hardly be a subtle problem. Statements of faith and actions of rejection tend to clash with one another. Even the old-school films about the faithful or religious tend to include grand gestures. Falconetti did not hold back in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Is a chess game over the souls of 14th Century folk played between a knight and Death subtle? A little melodrama fits, and Garfield provides just about all of it.

The first half of the film hones in on Rodrigues and Garupe as they minister to the friendly townspeople of Tomogi, where the people are Christians holding out as best they can against the threat of the inquisition. The town’s leader is Ichizo (Yoshi Oida), an old man who refuses to bend to the inquisition and is the first captive taken by the inquisitor and his command in the town. But the community’s most fervent Christian turns out to be Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto), the one who lasts the longest in the tides; for four days he endures the water and deprivation of his execution before dying. At one point he gives Rodrigues a small, crudely carved crucifix, one of the rare signs of the faith that anyone in the town possesses. Mokichi relishes the icons and practices of Christianity, having suffered without any real way to take Communion or have his sins forgiven. In the end, his faith turns out to be as great as any person’s in the movie; Rodrigues tells him at one point that he wishes that he could give Mokichi as much as Mokichi has given him. His death, which Rodrigues and Garupe watch from a hidden place, is arguably the most powerful and riveting part of the movie; it contains all of the grays that Scorsese does such a magnificent job bringing into the film while honing our pity for a man who can hardly be said to have done anything wrong. And yet his death feels hollow to Rodrigues, and to us as well. Ferreira, although he never meets or hears of Mokichi, has the reason why. The Japanese Christians who die don’t really die for the glory of God, he says. They die for the glory of us, the priests. And thinking about Mokichi’s relationship with Rodrigues in particular, the bond that the two of them share that Garupe does not (and is made clear in a very triangular shot), and the horrifying way that Mokichi dies, it’s hard not to wonder if Ferreira has it right. After Rodrigues has been captured, he finds himself put into a group with some other Christians (who are significantly less scared of dying than he is). In one sequence, when each one of them is placed before the image of Christ, we see the whole thing from Rodrigues’ perspective. Each one of them looks at the camera/Rodrigues before they go in front of the icon, and not one of them places a foot upon it; given strength by the priest, not by God, they hold fast. All of them die, but one of them dies on the spot; he is decapitated by one of the jailers, and his head rolls, eyes open, in front of Rodrigues’ cell.

No one relies on the priests in this movie more than Rodrigues’ and Garupe’s guide, the repeated apostate Kichijiro (Kubozuka). Several times throughout the film he gives up his faith under duress, and every time it haunts him. He is the only one of his family to apostatize, and he watches all of them burn for their faith. When the people of Tomogi have to choose hostages for the inquisition, they draft Kichijiro because he is not from their town; Kichijiro spits on the Crucifix and is allowed to live. Kichijiro runs into Rodrigues when the latter has separated, for safety’s sake, from Garupe; Kichijiro betrays Rodrigues to the inquisition but his guilt won’t let him take any of the money. (It’s ten times as much silver as Judas got for Jesus, Rodrigues notes wryly.) Kichijiro apostatizes again for the good example of the many prisoners and is allowed to run off. Kichijiro is caught wearing an icon of a saint almost forty years after the major events of the film, and only then is he taken away and presumably executed. Each time, he looks to Rodrigues to hear his confession, and almost every time Rodrigues does it for him, even when he knows that Kichijiro has given him up to the government. Rodrigues (who bears quite the resemblance to traditional depictions of white Jesus at this point), is disgusted with Kichijiro, asking God how he stands forgiving people who don’t deserve it, who have gone through all manner of last chances. Kichijiro is by far the most human character of the bunch, the man who couldn’t do the right thing with a list of instructions, a morphine IV for the impending pain, and a signed affidavit from God guaranteeing his place in the heavenly mansions. (There is at least one woke minister who will get Silence from a Redbox and turn Kichijiro into an optimistic sermon about God’s forgiveness instead of recognizing Kichijiro and his contemporaries as evidence of irredeemable depravity.)  Once Rodrigues has been defeated, apostatized and never tried to resist the government again, taken a Japanese name, Japanese family, and Japanese household (all courtesy of a deceased Japanese man), even written out innumerable statements of his renunciation of Christianity, the comparisons to Kichijiro are apparent. The difference is that Kichijiro feels the ability of God to forgive; although Rodrigues does not give up the faith entirely (as evidenced by the final shot of the film), he seems unable to seek God’s forgiveness in the way that Kichijiro does. In that way Rodrigues is like Ferreira. In a moment late in the film, Ferreira lets slip an “Our Lord.” You called him “Our Lord,” Rodrigues said. Did I? Ferreira responds. He does not treat it as a statement of resistance or a call sign of the faith they both still harbor without any of the ritual practice that makes it come alive. It’s simply how he used to talk, a habit that he can’t kick and which is fruitless to continue indulging in. It fits in neatly with the rest of the film; what’s the point of clinging to something you can’t shake from your heart if you couldn’t hold to it at the moment of greatest exigency? More than any other question, that seems to me to be the most imperative, frightening question that Silence raises.

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