It’s only fitting that a film like Silence is met with little fanfare, virtually no buzz, merely one Oscar nomination for Rodrigo Prieto’s undeniable cinematography. Even though one of our greatest filmmakers, Martin Scorsese, slaved to make this film. Even though Silence aches with conviction and doubt. Even though it captures something timeless, the spirit of our greatest cinema. Even as it unfolds only to be immediately lost, barely seen and heard—already but a memory of a masterpiece.
It’s not of-the-moment filmmaking. America doesn’t know what to do with it, this masterwork based on Shusaku Endo’s classic novel about two Portuguese Jesuit priests trying both to find their mentor and to nurture seeds of their faith planted in the “swamp” of feudal-era Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed to the point of torture and death. Nor does the rest of the world know what to do with it, either. The Academy certainly doesn’t. Some people have loved it, some were perplexed and some hated it. But most have not seen Silence at all, and that’s a shame. It conveys with utter focus of its gestalt one of the greatest narratives that literature’s given us in the past 100 years. Like Endo’s book, the film Silence is both text and subtext of our most difficult and challenging discussions as human beings: on the substance of our beliefs; the substance of our fears; the substance of our aggression and violence and of our seeking to control and/or protect ourselves and our people; the substance of the silence that surrounds all of this and on which we dare to impart meaning.
The book engaged in that dare—the film does, too. Few works of art have done so with a simplicity made of such complexity and uncertainty, grinding through torture, death, incisive interrogation (often from Inquisitor Inoue, played in remarkable fashion by Issey Ogata) and the most devastating of spiritual crises to a resolution that in its charged profundity finds a way to redeem that strife without rationalizing one bit of it. At the end of Endo’s novel the protagonist (though certainly not hero) Father Rodrigues declares to himself that even if God had been silent his whole life, his life would speak of God. Since Silence is very loosely based on real events and people, the text itself reflexively bears witness to this declaration, one that is included in the film. Yet Scorsese takes it a step further. He has to, because his film hits a point about two hours in where its threads, instead of unraveling, begin to wind upward, tightening in form and grip like a noose hung from heaven.
Silence is a film about the plurality of belief, perspective and experience—-and about how, in the culmination of this plurality, these pieces cancel each other out. When that cancellation happens, one hears what really lies beneath all the barrage of noise: silence. This is not an atheist’s or nihilist’s creed, however; here silence sounds like peace and absolution. A voice speaks in the silence and it could be Jesus or it could be one’s own mind responding to the silence, transformed into the voice of Christ—when Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) finally hears Christ speak it sounds like a merging of his own voice with that of his mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—because Christ carried the purity of that same silence within. All divisions are melted down to nothing. Selfishness ceases because the self is no longer a thing, or is extant to the self recognized in all others. Perfection is the sound of the black between the stars, absolute and whole. Orthodox Christian thought typically associates God with light, life, being, paradise, the Word. But it would seem that any concept of God—-the supposed source of everything—-that hopes to be cogent has to include in that concept the opposites that compose our reality: darkness, death, negation, oblivion, the non-Word. At the root of the language of the universe and existence is this binary. Perhaps God really is Alpha and Omega.
In an interview with Scorsese, Film Comment noted that Silence is like an “apostate apotheosis.” In his foreword to a recent edition of the book, Scorsese himself mused that Silence was a gospel of Judas, on the surface referring to the weak Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a guide for the priests who ends up repeatedly betraying them, but in truth referring to nearly every character in the story, especially Rodrigues. Especially Scorsese himself. It couldn’t be more clear why Scorsese connects with this material the way he does: It describes him and everything his art represents. It is the core of who he is, a believer who believes to the point that he must doubt.
When Christ said, “Deny yourself and follow me,” it might have been a command that was misunderstood or not fully realized for 2,000 years until Endo wrote Silence. The denial of self isn’t simply a surface denial. It is a fundamental dismissal of pride, perception, ego and superego…all the way to denying the very belief system that demands this denial. Implicit in Christ’s command is that everything starts with Christ’s own self-denial, opening up a void in which we may lose ourselves and look for our own faces and see Christ’s reflection instead, knowing for the first time that this image is but a symbol of the silence that now lives inside us. But then, by transferring the feeling we have towards that symbol to the void that belies it, we might discover love for the silence. Societies and psyches are built on symbols; the symbols themselves are nothing, but when they elicit love, they’re everything. When they elicit the opposite, they’re the stigmata of destroyers.
The love that grows in Rodrigues for the persecuted Japanese Christians is what saves him from his own arrogance and from a worldview that could too easily turn to sociopathic self-righteousness. Rodrigues despises Kichijiro, calling him worse than evil, or not worthy to be called even that. Yet in the continual process of Christ-like forgiveness, and through the weight of his own torment, Rodrigues is broken to where he can’t distinguish between himself and his Judas. They’re the same. Thus, Rodrigues finds Christ-like love for the low, the wretched—for himself. Rodrigues loses his crucifix but is given a crude one fashioned for him by the Japanese Christians; his lost faith in the film is replaced by a faith true to his experience. As John Keats basically said, truth is beauty and beauty truth. Silence expounds on that theme through showing why tragedy can be an expression of truth’s beauty, and must be reckoned as so in order to hold onto any idea of beauty or truth at all.
Scorsese has stated that his entire life’s work has been about religion and film. This is obvious: If his oeuvre has been a perpetual Kichijiro-esque cycle of profession and denial, sin and confession, damnation and redemption—a skipping beat of lapsed Catholic guilt that becomes its own record loop of cinematic art—Silence is the point where the needle drifts off the vinyl. One stands transfixed, watching the record spin, no sound in the air other than incidental noise and the murmur of one’s own breath. That the Oscars deemed the brilliant ambient score by Kim and Kathryn Kluge not “substantial” enough for a nomination pretty well exemplifies how impossible it is for them to grasp exactly why Scorsese’s film is, in fact, one of his best films. Consummate control defines the film’s effect; Scorsese has never been more dialed-in or divine.
That’s largely because Silence is a destined match of source and adaptation, with Scorsese as filmmaker of the West taking on a seminal work from a Japanese Catholic. Scorsese and Endo both are revered outsiders, and Silence is their most outsider work. No wonder, then, that it is being ignored or pushed aside. It fits no agenda. It has no choir to preach to.
Culturally, Silence is about a clash of the East with the West, neither culture held as better than the other, the terrible conflict between them revealed as human distortion of a fundamental equivalency. Quid pro quo, Scorsese marries Western/European cinema, be it his own work or the existential sweats of Ingmar Bergman, the moral ponderance of Éric Rohmer, the ascetic aesthetic choices of masters like Robert Bresson (minimal/no music, for instance) and Carl Th. Dreyer, with the lucid imagery of Eastern/Japanese greats like Kenji Mizoguchi (Silence has the best use of fog since Ugetsu), with the visceral thrum of Akira Kurosawa (along with the multiplicity of narrator from Rashomon and Ran’s trenchant confluence of hope with despair), and with Yosujiro Ozu’s filmic image as exacting evolution of tableaux, always angled in a reverence for the moment itself. There are interactions and images that remind, too, of Andrei Tarkovsky, perhaps none moreso than Silence’s final image.
It’s here that after a startlingly faithful (yet cinematically expressive) rendition of Endo’s story, Silence the film becomes also, completely, Scorsese’s story. For Scorsese’s in an exile not unlike Rodrigues’s. Scorsese stands lapsed from the church he still holds dear while his beliefs are ones that the secular culture in which he’s an icon can’t take seriously—so much so that the man delivers a veritable masterpiece on the subject and his peers won’t so much as throw him a directing nomination, or him and Jay Cocks a nod for adapted screenplay, or recognize the immaculate editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. Somehow they picked Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge over his shattered performance here (to say nothing of the supporting performances by Neeson and Ogata).
For the shunning is real—and, in some ways, self-imposed. In Nostalghia, Tarkovsky’s surrogate for himself in the narrative is in exile, longing for his homeland. The final shot in that film is one of the all-time great final shots, a dream-like pulling out from the home of the poet’s memory to the poet himself to the poet in a strange land that is itself within the ruins of some cathedral-like structure. The final shot of Silence is like an inversion of this same odd catharsis, both formally and thematically. The shot is established in a natural beauty that the film has often emphasized (Taiwan subbing for Japan), but here it quickly pushes in on a blazing burial basket, within which is Rodrigues, within his clutched hands a secret: the cross given to him by the Kirishitan, both the vestige and iconoclasm of his repressed faith.
In these final moments of the film there is no swell of music to make us feel. No, beneath and beyond the savage sound and fury of humanity that the film has methodically doled out for three hours, we come at last to that final silence. Here is the epiphany. Here’s the way home. For in the contrast of this place with the symbol before our eyes—-digging into our roots, churning up the void, now and forever, far past the injustice and pain and our process of obsolescence—-is the howling din of the self-conscious. Thus, the silence sounds like the true, beautiful, holy voice of God. Full of nothing, full of grace.