Paramount Pictures (2016), 161 minutes
The first thing we see in Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence is mist—the mist of 17th century Edo Japan. If it weren’t for the people and objects in and around the mist, an East Asian landscape painting, perhaps one of the magnificent Chinese shan shui style and the Japanese styles it influenced, might come to mind. Shan shui paintings evince a serene peace, and their benign mists rest in the spaces between gently flowing rivers, gracefully flourishing trees, and statuesque natural rock formations. The obscuring mists in shan shui paintings are meant to evoke awe at the hidden mysteries of the universe—a reaction that was cherished in the Taoism that influenced the style. In The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Wucius Wong writes that seeing the mist in these landscape paintings is “like being in meditation, when the entire cosmos looks like a white mist, and one finds oneself in a world of white light.”
But the mist in Silence is not the peaceful mist of meditative East Asian landscape paintings. In the first scene of Silence, the mist obscures the Portuguese Jesuit Ferreira’s view of the Japanese officials torturing his comrades. It rises from boiling hot springs whose water is used to scald the Jesuit martyrs. This marks the first of several memorable episodes in the film where mist hides a mysterious and malevolent Japan from Europeans who wish to understand it.
The next scene takes place years later, when Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is the topic of discussion in his old monastery in Portugal. His two young acolytes have heard no news from him, and worry for his safety and welfare. Confronted with rumors that he has abandoned the Christian faith, they insist on traveling together to Japan to find him.
The shots of Portugal contain no obscuring mists. The only clouds are those hovering over the minds of the young Jesuits, clouds of doubt about the possibility of their mentor’s apostasy, and of confusion about the unknown Japanese land to which they travel. Mental mists persist after they arrive in Japan and begin to experience the physical mists as well. The mists return in several key scenes of the film, at one point hiding a group of samurai bent on torturing Christians, and at another hiding friendly villagers.
Portuguese Jesuits of four centuries ago would certainly not have thought of Chinese shan shui art when experiencing the abundant mists of Japan. More familiar images to them would have been the cloud that the Old Testament described as periodically covering the tabernacle of ancient Israel, or the story in the New Testament of a cloud covering Jesus as he underwent his Transfiguration. In these scriptural accounts, clouds hide glory and knowledge from humans unready to fully comprehend them. These stories indicate that traditional Christianity shares with the Taoism of Asian landscape painters, and indeed with every other major religious tradition, an element of mystery. All of the world’s religions ask that practitioners become resigned and comfortable with incomplete knowledge—as with Moses asking God, “Show me your glory” and being denied the chance to see God’s face, or, as St. Paul described it, being obliged to see “through a glass, darkly.”
The two young priests in Silence (Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield and Garupe, played by Adam Driver), came from a Christian tradition that required an acceptance of clouds occasionally hiding knowledge and glory. On the other hand, they also lived during an era of scientific revolution in the run-up to the Enlightenment, and were contemporaries of Galileo and Newton. John Locke, another contemporary, wrote about reason as a “candle” that “shines bright enough for all our purposes.” Like Newton, who wanted to stand on the shoulders of giants to see more, Locke and other 17th century thinkers wanted more than anything else to see the universe clearly, unblocked by clouds of mist or what Shelley much later called “a cloud of error.”
The tension between a desire to know everything, to see through every obscuring mist on the one hand, and the religious injunction to accept a foggy, limited understanding of an often-inscrutable God on the other, is familiar to every believer. Silence is in part the story of the mighty inner struggles that Rodrigues and Garupe must endure to resolve this tension within themselves. At the same time, the film asks many questions of the viewer that it declines to explicitly answer. It thus challenges all viewers—believers and nonbelievers alike—to imbibe an individual experience of the tension between the desire to know and the requirement to accept not knowing.
The major action of the film revolves around the 17th century Japanese government’s politically motivated attempts to extinguish the Christian religion from within its borders. An “Inquisitor” called Inoue Masashige (capably played by Issey Ogata) manages the discovery and interrogation of suspected Christians. Interrogation is followed by either punishment (by various methods of torture and execution) or conversion to Buddhism, attested by the suspected Christian symbolically stepping on an image of Christ or Mary.
Inquisitor Inoue had learned that the Jesuit missionaries had all been weaned on admiring stories about martyrs who sacrificed their bodies and lives for the faith. Torturing and killing the missionaries was thus ineffective, since it only gave them an opportunity to achieve the same glory of their beloved martyrs. The tactic that Inoue therefore adopted was to torture the Japanese peasant Christians in the presence of an untortured priest, and promise to cease the torture upon the priest’s apostasy. That way the priest would accrue no glory for suffering bodily for the faith, and each moment of refusal to apostatize would burden him with complicity for the agonizing pain inflicted on innocent peasant converts. In the words of Inoue to Rodrigues, “the price for your glory is their suffering.”
This particular tactic for persecuting Christians was without precedent in any of the common accounts of Christian martyrdom that would have been familiar to Rodrigues and Garupe. The familiar saintly formula of mortification of the flesh that is rewarded with exaltation of the spirit is muddled; instead, they faced a choice between two spiritual mortifications: either allowing and causing others’ physical torture, or reneging on a sacred vow of fidelity. How could either a spiritual mortification or a betrayal lead to the rewards they sought? As strangers in a strange land, they had neither historical examples nor their missing mentor to guide them through this dilemma.
At several points in the film, the young priests discuss the proper response to Inoue’s tactic. Garupe is rigid in arguing for strict resistance, giving the simple advice, “You must pray for courage.” At one point Rodrigues advises the peasants that in the face of awful danger to their loved ones, “it’s alright to trample.” Although this is his advice to the congregants, as a consecrated priest who had taken serious vows of fidelity he feels that he cannot do it himself. One Japanese official minimizes the act of apostasy, saying: “This is just a formality. . . . We’re not asking you to do it sincerely. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t betray your faith. . . . It’s only a picture.”
A modern viewer may think the dogmatic refusal to make a symbolic gesture before a sadistic bureaucrat is utterly foolish. Surely it is “only a picture,” so from a Benthamite utilitarian point of view, symbolic apostasy is the optimal choice: a simple action, anonymously performed, that immediately ends imprisonment and pain for dozens of loved ones. For a believer, however, this option discounts the infinite expected utility of a heavenly reward. One of the Japanese Christians in the film expresses this simple faith-based utilitarian argument in the desirability of suffering and dying for her beliefs: “our father . . . Padre Juan . . . said if we die we will go to paraiso [from the Portuguese for paradise]. Isn’t it good to die? Paraiso is so much better than here. No one hungry, never sick. No taxes, no hard work.”
Even from a secular perspective, there is an argument for refusing to bend to the Inquisitor’s will and the utilitarian imperative. Consider the justification that one Robert Heinlein “sci-fi” character offers for his enlistment in the army: “I had to perform an act of faith. I had to prove to myself that I was a man. Not just a producing-consuming economic animal . . . but a man.” Utility reasoning is a logical criterion for evaluating important decisions, but it is also the same criterion that animals and lifeless computer programs use. For some, embracing less than fully rational modes of thought for the sake of feeling less like an animal and more like a true human being who can exercise free will has strong appeal. This is roughly the argument proposed by Thoreau for his own (arguably) irrational resistance to vengeful state functionaries:
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies . . . they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. . . . A very few—as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part . . . .
Thoreau argued for a paradox: that by resisting the state, heroes, patriots, and martyrs most effectively serve it by dragging it toward a better incarnation of itself. The Christians of Silence experienced their own version of this: They most effectively became human by eschewing human utilitarian considerations and trying to become super-human saints.
The film was a box office failure, earning $16 million worldwide against a budget of $40 million. On the other hand, considering the heavy theological issues at its forefront, painful-to-watch torture scenes, and its 161-minute runtime, it’s almost a surprise that anyone went to see it at all. It might also seem like a surprise that anyone invested the money to produce it in the first place. The explanation for this is simple: It’s a Scorsese film. His powerful reputation as a living legend auteur could attract big-name actors and millions of dollars to any project he cared to work on.
If Scorsese could work on any project at all, why did he work on this? In fact, he has wanted to make this movie for decades, since he read the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo on which the movie was based. He was involved with the film not only as a director, but also as a producer and screenwriter. He described his motivation for making the movie as follows:
“Its subject matter is something that’s sort of consumed me my whole life, really. The themes in this picture kept me going—compassion, love—these things were always very strong with me because of the relationship I had when I was young with the Catholic Church in New York. There was a priest in my neighborhood who was very much a mentor to us and really opened our minds to the opportunities in America. . . . [T]he interest in the message or the tenets of the religion and the application of it in daily life has always been something to me that has been a theme, an idea.”
The ideas of faith in general and Christianity in particular can be found in nearly all of Scorsese’s films by someone who cares to look for them. He has most explicitly explored them in Kundun, his film about the Dalai Lama, and of course The Last Temptation of Christ. But while those two films show religions on their respective native soils and in the personalities of their greatest leaders, Silence tells stories of undistinguished peasants and nobodies in a beautiful but remote corner of the world. So, Silence does not risk generating controversy about misrepresenting famous historical figures, but trades this for the risk of attracting accusations of cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism.
These accusations were voiced in great detail by The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato. Her review’s subtitle complains that the film “is far more concerned with [the Jesuit priest’s] agony than that of the ‘other.’” She refers to Rodrigues as the film’s “white savior,” describing the film as “an ardent story about cultural imperialism and Western arrogance that doesn’t recognize its own” and that “embraces the white male perspective.” She describes the missionaries as bringing “guns and God” and “their ‘truth’ to a country of naïve converts in need” with an “interloper’s condescension.”
The first thing I would say about Ms. Yamato’s criticisms is that, in a very limited sense, she is right. The film does primarily show the point of view of the European Catholic white male Rodrigues. Japan is shown as a foreign and inscrutable land, and even one that contains many horrors. If Endo’s novel had been adapted by a Japanese filmmaker, it would have been a very different film. In fact, it has been adapted by a Japanese filmmaker (in 1971), and that adaptation was very different from Scorsese’s version.
I could point out some excuses for Scorsese primarily taking a white, male, Catholic perspective in his film. For example, I could describe the ways that Silence takes time to focus on and develop some of the Japanese characters and show their humanity and depth, most notably Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). But the best excuse for Scorsese taking a white, male, Catholic perspective is simple: that’s the only perspective he has. Born in Queens to Italian parents and raised to manhood as a Catholic, Scorsese does not make movies as a scientist or a demographer focused on cultural balance or an omniscient third party, but rather as Scorsese: a human artist with a unique voice that comes in part from his personal identity.
Scorsese can only make movies as Scorsese with all of his particular background and characteristics; that is not unjust but merely axiomatic. If he tried to make a movie in exactly the same way a Japanese filmmaker would make a movie, with that perspective and cultural upbringing, the result’s cosmopolitanism would not compensate for its inauthenticity. Scorsese himself pointed this out in an interview about Silence, saying:
There’s no doubt that, you know, I’m fairly well versed in Japanese cinema . . . going back to the first Japanese film I saw. It was 1954 or ’55, it was on television, and it was called Ugetsu. . . . I became obsessed, really, with Japanese films. . . . [T]his was a long process too, as to how to approach the picture visually, and what is in my mind? Are there Japanese films in my mind? If that’s the case, then it’s not acc—it’s not authentic. It has to be how I see it, not how I think Japanese cinema would look, or a film shot in Japan about the 17th century would look.
The real problem with these criticisms of cultural chauvinism is that they are distractions from the more important aesthetic features of the film. As important as politics is, it is not greater than art. Each era has its own political obsessions. We have plenty today, and race and historical victim status are among them. But though those obsessions will someday fade and others will replace them, the greatest art of today will endure undimmed by the political fashions of any given moment. Like Picasso said, “there is no past or future in art.” When considering the worth of a film like Silence, aesthetic considerations should trump political ones.
The great Ray Bradbury expressed this idea decades ago:
For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conservationist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. . . . If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. . . .
We might add, if anyone is upset about the cultural imbalances in Silence, then remake it, and tell it in your own way, whatever way that might be. Or make another film about something completely different. Of course, Japanese filmmakers are doing just that, and have been for many years.
Last year, Variety ran a story about Shinya Tsukamoto, one such Japanese director. He was not offended by any of Scorsese’s supposed imperialism. In fact, he admired Scorsese so much that when he heard about Silence, he contacted the casting director and ended up in a key role (Mokichi). The Japan Times, for its part, ran a lukewarm review of Silence that faulted it for its length and tediousness but not for its cultural insensitivity. The reception of the film in Japan seemed to be relatively positive, though of course it wasn’t enough of a hit anywhere in the world to enable the film to come close to breaking even.
The last third of the film shows Rodrigues’s final approach to the Inquisitor’s persecutions. The ending contains some surprises, and rewards repeated viewings. During the film, Rodrigues spends anguished hours praying to a God whose silence in response torments him. Eventually, Christ speaks to Rodrigues, breaking his long silence, and claiming that he never had been silent at all. But after Christ speaks, the narration shifts from Rodrigues’s voice to the voice of an uninformed third party. In the last part of the film, viewers are subjected to the silence of Rodrigues. Like Rodrigues had to wonder about the silence of Christ and the contents of Christ’s mind and heart, viewers face the same challenges determining the contents of the heart of Rodrigues. What motivated his ultimate decision—the concerns of a utilitarian or the concerns of a saint? What were its consequences in his mind and conscience? What has become of his faith? The film does not provide certain answers; instead it matches the silence of Christ and Rodgrigues with a soundtrack that is elegiac and spare.
In the final scene, we see the late Rodrigues being cremated, many years after the main action of the film. The fire that engulfs his body recalls a tense argument earlier in the film about what the Japanese martyrs were dying for. “I saw men die for Deus. On fire with their faith,” Rodrigues fervently claimed. The cynical reply was: “Your martyrs may have been on fire. But it was not with the Christian faith. . . . They’re dying for you.” When we see Rodrigues literally on fire, we have only the smallest hint about the faith with which he died, and for what purpose he lived his last years and died, if indeed the answer was for anything other than himself. Viewers are left to come to their own conclusions.
I was a Mormon missionary in Southeast Asia for two years when I was around twenty years old. My experience lacked the hellish intensity of the missionaries’ experience in Silence, but on some small level I could still relate. I was interviewed several times by government and military functionaries who told me of their concerns about the social unrest I might cause in their respective nations. I ran a meeting for isolated Christians in a country that, I later found out, explicitly penalized such forbidden activity with jail time. In a different country, someone called the police on me. The policeman who came lectured me on the undesirability of missionary work in an historically non-Christian nation with reasoning strikingly similar to the reasoning presented to Rodrigues in Silence about why Christianity could never take root in Japan. When traveling between certain countries, I hid contraband Christian scriptures in my luggage lest they be confiscated at the border.
These minor discomforts were nothing like the tortures depicted in Silence, but they mostly came as a shock to a young American like me who, at the time, couldn’t imagine the reasoning behind imposing even minor penalties for religious meetings and proselytizing activities. I tried to understand these policies and regimes that I regarded as nothing more or less than inquisitorial, differing in degree of brutality but not in essential motivation from the inquisitorial regime in Edo Japan, or in any other place where religious minorities have been persecuted.
One conclusion I drew from these experiences and ruminations was that there is a puzzling but constant desire in at least some human hearts to control even the most insignificant minutiae of what other people believe. At one point in Silence, a suspected Christian villager raises an ineffectual protest against the punishments he is threatened with: “But we pay our taxes every year and do our duty to the State. We worship Buddha in the temple.” The Inquisitor’s underling is not fazed by this plea of good behavior. He does not dispute its truth, but replies, “I am well aware that you are all good people. We only want to hear about those who embrace the outlawed faith.” His, or his government’s, interest was in the personal beliefs of the citizens, regardless of outward behavior.
We see occasional glimpses of this same inquisitorial instinct even in the most liberal nations of today’s West. In one famous 2012 case a British borough council removed three children from their foster parents, according to the BBC, “because they belong to the UK Independence Party.” Regardless of their track record as caring foster parents, local bureaucrats thought it appropriate to remove the children for reasons that are hard to understand as anything other than punitive toward those holding beliefs they didn’t like. In 2014, Brendan Eich was forced to resign as CEO of the Mozilla corporation as the result of an “online shaming campaign” of activist individuals and corporations who, though they found nothing to criticize in his behavior, disliked his beliefs about gay marriage. In 2016, the CEO of Grubhub emailed his employees to say that he “absolutely reject[ed] the . . . hateful politics of Donald Trump” and added: “If you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here.” Employees thought that they had contracted to do work in exchange for pay, but their CEO now demanded not just good work but also inner beliefs that conformed to his own. These incidents, though separated in space and time and ideologically diverse in their particulars, clearly manifest the human inquisitorial tendency at work.
But Inquisition is not the only story in Silence. The film also conveys compelling accounts of the unlikely friendship and brotherhood that can flourish even between people from different continents, speaking different languages, who have barely met. It shows redemption and forgiveness and regret and longing and adventure. It is therefore not only former missionaries or Japanese Catholics who can enjoy the film. Its long shots with slow movements evoke Japanese Noh theatre, a genre meant to provide opportunities for private meditation as much as to provide public entertainment. This is the film’s great strength: that like a long Noh sequence, or the mist in a shan shui painting, its dreamy silences provide a blank canvas on which to project our own experiences and quietly meditate on anything or everything or nothing in particular. This is an uncommon opportunity, especially uncommon in Hollywood movies. Whether believer or unbeliever, Inquisitor or victim, imperialist or isolationist, this should be a welcome opportunity for anyone with a soul.