Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Silence

Martin Scorsese's Silence is a late-career triumph of depth and energy that doesn't feel like any American film I've seen in a very long time. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks from a 1960's novel by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, and the resulting film is ruminative but doesn't drag. Only a director with so much success behind him could get away with raising unanswerable questions the way Scorsese does here, and it's that daring that gives Silence much of its power. Two Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver, given much to do but still underused), arrive in the Japan of the 17th century seeking a priest named Ferreira (Liam Neeson) rumored to have abandoned the faith. Christianity is illegal in Japan but still practiced by believers in small villages. Those suspected of Christianity are forced to step on an image of Jesus Christ as a sign of their apostasy, and this very cinematic action creates an almost unbearable tension anytime one of the characters is asked to perform it.

Rodrigues and Garupe are welcomed by villagers but still forced to live like outlaws, hiding during the day and only saying mass after dark. Ferreira is elusive, only a rumor (when he finally arrives Neeson gives the kind of performance no one has asked him for in some time), and Rodrigues feels the lack of a larger divine presence as a test of his faith. It's useful to think about the set of principles for living that one might call "Christian" as something separate from the doctrine and dogma of "The Church" in Silence, and a question the film puts to the viewer is what The Church has to offer in real terms when people are being oppressed. When the local Governor (Issey Ogata) arrests a group of men who had sheltered Rodrigues and Garupe the two can only hide and watch in horror. The two are upset as men but ineffectual in their official role, and Silence frequently puts Rodrigues (who soon separates from Garupe) in the position of watching and being unable to act. It's an unusual state for the main character of a film to be in, but Andrew Garfield makes it work by giving Rodrigues a careful internal arc of doubt and regret. Garfield spends much of the film with a beard and long hair that's untied; it's worth noting how empty he looks when forced to appear clean shaven later on. The hair is just a clue to what's going on with the character: we're watching a man crumble from the inside when his lived experience comes into conflict with faith.

When Rodrigues is captured with another group of Japanese Christians he is kept in a separate cell and treated reasonably well. It's assumed he'll save his fellow prisoners by becoming an apostate, and Silence pauses to consider why he doesn't. There's an argument made that human vanity keeps one from living a Christian life, or in other words that Rodrigues needs to see himself as adhering to a doctrine to such a degree that it keeps him from a truly Christian action. This seems a very Eastern idea and Scorsese lets it ride, having great sympathy for the selfless Japanese Christians while trapping Rodrigues in the consequences of his own behavior. Martyrdom doesn't come easy in Silence. The complexity of the film is attested to by the fact that an audience of any degree of faith will find something in the work, from the constant faith of the villager Mokichi (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) to Rodrigues and his confusion at God's inaction. Scorsese can't answer all the questions raised by Silence and he doesn't have to. The film is a late work in the best sense, not a summing up but an asking of deeper questions. While Martin Scorsese will no doubt turn to more familiar stories in future projects he has done some of his best work here, creating a work of great richness that deserves deeper study.

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