BFI Scorsese Season – Silence (2017)
The long road to penitence begins here. Almost three decades in the making Martin Scorsese’s latest, and potentially penultimate picture is finally anointed in the church of cinema, if he keeps to his recent comments about hanging up his viewfinder. This passion project has been adapted by Scorsese and his frequent screenwriter collaborator Jay Cocks from the celebrated 1966 novel Silence by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. This is not the first time this striking story has been brought to the screen, in fact it has been filmed twice before, once by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971 and by João Mario Grilo as The Eyes of Asia in 1996. I’ve seen neither so we’re not operating from a position of comparison, but I can assume that analysing all three could be a fascinating exercise as they emanate from the perspectives of the host and interloper countries – Japan and Portugal – with a neutral approach provided from the US with this latest translation. Anyway, that’s a whole other exercise, Silence has already been compartmentalised as the final entry in Scorsese’s so-called spiritual trilogy, mused in theological trysts alongside 1988’s controversy baiting The Last Temptation Of Christ and 1997’s zen like Kundun, neither perhaps Marty’s most celebrated works but both harbouring an essential and central ingredient of his entire cinematic oeuvre – the spirit and faith, and how our physical actions connect with the divine via our morally constructed maelstroms.
I’ve mentioned it here before but after growing up in those ‘mean streets’ of Queens and later in his childhood the Little Italy enclave of Manhattan Scorsese was submitted to the Catholic seminary at age 15, a path of devout clemency being laid before him. Thankfully for us heathen cinephiles he didn’t take to his studies and instead turned to the cinema, where he has spent a career examining men – and the fact is that it is nearly always men – wracked in some lacerating mortal or spiritual torment, sometimes finding some sort of redemption or transcendence, and sometimes….not. These themes find themselves at the heart of Silence which reminds one of Apocalypse Now given the similar trajectory into a pagan Heart Of Darkness, a clandestine pilgrimage into the hostile unknown of another culture and country, in order to resurrect with a lost mentor, to rescue an almost saint like idol. It’s 17th century Portugal, and Jesuit Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are advised by their superiors that a letter has fallen into their hands from a colleague long thought lost to the lord. A Dutch trader, one of the rare merchants from Europe allowed entry to the isolated Japan of that era has passed on correspondence from their inspirational mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), but the wonderful news of his mortality is coated with concerns, as the liaison also slanders Ferreira by claiming that he has since renounced the church and turned away from god. Refusing to believe this both Father Rodrigues and Garupe decide to follow in their teachers footsteps, and risk torture, death or worse in the mysterious Orient, where the practitioners of the Christian faith are lethally repressed since an earlier flowering of the faith was crushed by the Shinto / Buddhist majority.
This is an aesthetically beautiful film, a late flowering of a great master marshalling his frequent collaborative choir to beautiful crescendos, but the final effect rests on your own plinth of faith and belief, so speaking as a lifelong atheist I worshipped the craft but rejected the credo. Silence is set during a period of imperialistic colonisation of other corners of the globe by many Judeo-Christian sects, so their arrogance with converting others from their native beliefs, the prideful righteousness in enforcing their ideology on the poor and disenfranchised made me harbour zero sympathy for either Fathers journey, but we’ll come back to those dimensions shortly. Nevertheless as a historical backdrop the film is fascinating, following my visit to Japan a decade ago I have absorbed a little of Japanese history and was au fait with the shift from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji restoration, 17th century Japan being a near hermetically sealed culture and society. The fact that 300,000 converts had been raised and then been suppressed was a revelation, so there is much to enjoy from the sheer historical framework of Scorsese’s spiritual sociology. The design of the film is exquisite, from the gilded costumes of feudal Japan to the harmonious architecture of the dynamic dojo and seething peasant villages, garnishing Dante Ferreti (this is his 9th collaboration with Scorsese) a guaranteed Academy Award nomination. The colour palette is dominated with the frail and pale, the mist choked and mysterious in the opening sequences as slowly DP Rodergio Piasto infuses golds and flickering harbingers of light into compositions, as the Priests are tested and their religious odyssey requires a more frantic grip on their Jesuit faith. The camera movements are discreet, Scorsese’s usual inquisitive, darting minnow guidance through scenes shifting from POV to isolate specific sectors of interest, but there is no showboating here, there’s no Copacabana centrepiece, as Silence is a much more pious visual experience – although some of the landscapes are spectacular. In penitence to the title the soundtrack is also sparse and diagetic generated led, cloaking the auditorium with the chirping cacophony of the Japanese flora and fauna, enveloping all the senses in a pre-industrial Oriental Eden. Oh, and for you cult movie fans out there yes that is Shinya Tsukamoto – cybermind behind the Tetsuo pictures – who appears in a reasonably large part as one of the diligent and devoted faithful.
Can we elevate Scorsese to the other great spiritual seers in the vestry, alongside Bresson and Dreyer, Bergman and Malick? No, his faith follows the poverty of Pasolini, finding the struggle in the street among the dispossessed and depraved, although his style certainly apes the celestial. When his name is uttered the first thoughts are usually of the machismo oozing urban malaise of New York, his energetic and fluid camerawork, all set to a rocking soundtrack of baby boomer classics. I’ve long linked his work to a quiet moral authority, they might be buried under the cinematic chutzpah of Wolf Of Wall Street or Goodfellas but without wasting my powder on my review of that masterpiece (with hopefully a special guest attended screening if I can get tickets) there is always quiet moral sermon underpinning his character odysseys, a search for asomatous nourishment and solace, although the conclusions remain intangible and as etherial as a wisp of smoke from a tabernacle candle. These enigmas are dropped in Silence which is more studious, slower paced and contemplative, whose maker is uncharacteristically wearing his heart on his sleeve. Despite its beauty and the dense theological and ethical debate it elevates this for me is where Silence comes unstuck. Usually Scorsese is too skilled and wise an artist to ever make his position so oblique, but questions of faith such as the priests insistence of their holy righteousness are dressed with a solemn endorsement. More problematically the dire consequences of the theocratic insurgency the Jesuits are fostering are explored but through the cinematic syntax it is clear where the sympathies ultimately lie. That was my reading of it and I don’t find that comfortable, although more pious souls may arrive at different conclusions. Still, like the best of ambitious, passion projects I’m sure these reactions could change or warp with age, Garfield is convincing as a man stretched to the absolute limits of his faith, and his climatic scenes are extremely powerful, dramatically and emotionally in the same category as Willem Dafoe in Last Temptation. I have to confess I have no intention of catching the film again at the cinema which should also speak volumes, as a major late period work by arguably the greatest American filmmaker of the past fifty years it of course remains essential viewing, even if Silence won’t be golden for everyone;