Wednesday, January 25, 2017


2016's SILENCE is one of the most (quietly) bold films to come out of Hollywood in some time.  Master director Martin Scorsese oversees this lengthy, sometimes difficult to watch adaption of Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel which details the journey of two young Jesuit priests.  Upon receiving a letter describing the apostasy (renouncing of faith) of their mentor in Japan, Fathers Garupe and Rodrigues travel from Portugal to Nagaski in the 17th century to find him.

The film was a decades long passion for Scorsese, who grew up Catholic and had once sought the priesthood.  Catholicism has played a role in (arguably) every major Scorcese picture, most obviously in RAGING BULL, MEAN STREETS, and the ultra controversial LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which had moments that imagined how Jesus would act if he were human.   But I see such imagery even in lesser regarded works like BRINGING OUT THE DEAD and WHO'S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR? too.  Its protagonists seeking redemption at every turn, their sometime bloodletting (and being bled upon) a sort of stigmata.

SILENCE spends its 2 and 1/2 plus hours slowly, painfully examining the cost of clinging to one's faith.  Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, quite good under such a weighty role) and Garupe (Adama Driver, good but perhaps underused) travel the unfamiliar terrain, a source of comfort and peace to Christian villagers who welcome the sacraments.  The priests hold underground churches at night and feel blessed to be fulfilling what they believe is God's Will, to spread the gospel into a very foreign land.

Inevitably, inquisitors and dissenters (one bearing more than a likeness to Judas) will bring the missionaries' identities out of the shadows.  The Buddhist samarai know that martyring the priests only serves to inspire the faithful, so they (slowly) torture and kill the followers in their place.  Each soul is able to spare such a fate by denying their religion, by placing their feet on a crudely carved image of Christ on a plate.  Most cannot.  Horrible, gruesomely creative tortures await.  All the while, Rodrigues, later separated from Garupe, watches helplessly as he is imprisoned and repeatedly betrayed.  He is driven by unwavering devotion, and occasional appearances of an El Greco portrait of Christ.  Perhaps also by religious pride?

"Helplessly"?  The governor and his court calmly remind Rodrigues that all of the suffering can end with a simple act,  a "formality" - stepping on the fumi-e.  It's almost a non-Christian correlate of the simplicity of asking Jesus into one's heart, to accept Christ.   Rodrigues agonizes, then agonizes some more. Is he clinging to Catholic ritual? Is he trying to become Jesus?  He sees be-headings and other grisly acts, desperately calling out to God.   He is not inspired or encouraged when he at last finds Father Cristovao (Liam Neeson).

Will the voice of God finally answer Rodrigues as he watches another ghastly bit of punishment doled out to steadfast Christians?  If the voice does come, is it really Divine, or just the priest's desperation?

SILENCE has been controversial among many Believers who feel that the film endorses, or at least tolerates the act of denying one's faith to save the lives of others.   The lives of others to which one friend of mine referred as mere "bodies".  To die is gain! What is there to be gained in a life that requires one to spit upon a crucifix? To tread on a holy image? To renounce faith publicly, even as the Bible instructs to confess Him before men? Even if one secretly holds Christ in his heart?

But what about faith being made perfect in weakness? Can Rodrigues be seen as humbling himself, casting away that aforementioned pride?  Many Christians won't see it that way.

Scorcese and co-writer Jay Cocks give patient viewers much to ponder (with Thelma Schoonmaker's measured editing, this is almost factored in).  Were those who are tortured worshipping Christ, or merely the padres who proclaim His name and take confessions? How would these followers define their faith? Would they have learned about Jesus and His salvation in their described "swamp" had the padres never arrived? That question could fuel a debate of the very idea of missions itself, how invading a land with a message that does not jive with the culture (and its long history) is inappropriate, disrespectful, even dangerous. Is the "Good News" just that? Were Cristovao and Rodrigues ultimately more like Jesus as they resigned to their fates, or just sell outs?

P.S.  The Academy has all but shut out SILENCE, with only a nomination for cinematography.   I've never been one to readily accept that there is a conspiracy against Christians (and Christian films, although most are complete dreck) in Hollywood, but for such an amazing, Scorcese directed film to be ignored certainly makes the case. 

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