Silence (2016)

by Matt Piucci

The movie “Silence” has some shots that are truly beautiful, as one would expect of the American Master, Martin Scorsese, so it is not a completely worthless experience.

“The King of Comedy” (1982) and “Goodfellas” (1990), as well as “The Last Waltz” (1978) and the beautiful tribute to George Harrison, “Living in the Material World” (2011) are testaments to the breadth and depth of Scorsese’s massive talent. But in this endeavor, in this movie, he has lost his way. To me, it is an absolute misery fest, an excruciating and self-indulgent wallowing in torture and cruelty. As an ex-seminarian and almost a priest, Scorsese’s take on the Japanese brutality towards Christians and priests borders on myopic and felt to me like a one-dimensional horror show.

Ostensibly, the subject matter could be interesting - why did the Japanese so vehemently reject Christianity when the Portuguese brought priests to Japan (out of Macau) in the early 1600s? It is certainly understandable why the Japanese would reject this invasion, given the horrific history of Christian malfeasance. Macau had solid trade with Japan, a regional power at the time and the Japanese tolerated the Portuguese, who were renting Macau from the Chinese. That tolerance would absolutely not extend to allowing any cultural or religious influence to disrupt their carefully controlled feudalistic society. The man who was the inspiration for this film and wrote the original novel in the 1960s, Shūsaku Endō, was a Japanese Catholic who felt he was an outsider in Japan, referring to his own country as a "mudswamp" in which nothing foreign or beautiful could grow. He was an outsider everywhere else as well, plus he was a sickly man, supposedly had a lung removed, and spent years living in hospitals and was no stranger to suffering. Perhaps the actual subject was the "silence" of Christ, as in why is he leaving everyone to suffer without guidance instead of leading them out of misery? The conclusion the book reaches, I think, is that the answer is supposed to be that He is there to suffer with you.

The film unfortunately focuses on the less interesting journey of two deluded priests (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who insist that they go to Japan to find the mythical Father Ferrara (Liam Neeson), a pioneering evangelist who converted many Japanese peasants. That was before the powers that be began their ruthless oppression and destruction of any hold Catholicism held on their island nation. The folks back home had received news Ferrara was dead, but did not accept it and convinced their Catholic superiors that they had to go to Japan, despite the danger (and frankly the stupidity), of their journey and mission. While I like both Garfield and Driver, they are fine young actors, their lame performances are probably the result of bad directing. I hold Scorsese in much higher regard than Woody Allen, another New York director, however they appear to have the same problem in recent films - the acting feels stiff and superficial.

Part of the story might have included the mistreatment of Christians and especially the priests, who were perhaps noble in the individual but truly destroyers in the aggregate, as had been seen across the world for centuries. But moments of enlightening discussion regarding this topic are few and far between, and constitute a very tiny percentage of the entire film. Those moments are interesting, when either of the apostate priests Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield, or one of those two characters and their captors are discussing the nature of the Catholic faith and of the Japanese culture and how Christianity simply does not fit. According to the feudal powers, the local understanding of Christianity’s basic tenets do not match those of the Europeans.

I would have vastly preferred a treatment more similar to “My Dinner with Andre”, where dialog and ideas were exchanged, perhaps with a brief flashback or two to the miserable state of the Christian peasants and Portuguese priests. Instead, it comes off as a primer on 17th century Japanese torture techniques, graphically displayed. Peasant after peasant is burned, broiled, drowned and buried alive in an attempt to convince them to reject Jesus, or even after they have, they are killed to convince the priests that they too must reject their faith. It is ugly, brutal, and worst of all in my view, gratuitous.

As I mentioned, the white actors appear silly and melodramatic, save Neeson. Some of the Japanese actors are very good, but their one-dimensional roles as abjectly impoverished and totally miserable peasants felt like a grind to me. My two favorite characters are the aforementioned Father Ferrara, and the local character Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who both helps the priests and betrays them multiple times.

Farther Fererra should have been the protagonist, as his journey and character arc seemed worthy of exploration. He was tortured into apostasy, but then accepted the idea that the Japanese culture and even language would not fit with the tenets of Christianity. Their worship of the “son” was in fact the Sun. Take a look at their flag. And the locals appear to treat the priest more like Jesus himself rather than his humble servants. But this interesting idea is not explored in detail and only appears at the end of the film

The conflicted Christian Kijichiro, played well here by Yôsuke Kubozuka, does seems like he was modeled from the films of another director. Scorsese obviously adores Kurosawa and is trying to emulate him, or at least pay homage to him here. Kijichiro is the one who sneaks the priests into Japan and brings them clandestinely to the flock who desperately (and I mean desperately) seem to need the priests. Once he gets to Japan, his body language, dialog and acting choices seem straight out of “Ran”, “Rashoman” or probably the “Seven Samurai”. I can’t nail down the exact character, but he appears to have been lifted straight from Kurosawa’s canon. I am not complaining about this, it is one of the things I like most about the film. But for some reason, the older director’s use of violence and brutality to depict feudal Japan is not as nasty and unbearable as Scorsese’s. Maybe it is the black and white, I am not sure. In general, I don’t buy the identity politics theory that one has to be from a particular culture in order to make art about it. But perhaps here it has some merit.

Scorsese's worst movie by far, also stars two priests – Sean Penn and Robert DeNiro in the terrible "We're no Angels" (1989). Stay away from the priests, Marty. This is one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, who has made multiple masterpieces. He is an American treasure. In the interests of fairness, my wife thought this was good movie and I trust her judgment. Her view was that the suffering was essential to the plot and the exposition of this foreign historical world was well done. For me, that was not enough.

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