Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”: A Hair Shirt, in Movie Form

Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”: A Hair Shirt, in Movie Form

However you define a “popcorn movie,” Silence is the opposite. I went in with a big tub of buttered on my lap, and every kernel stared up at me for 161 minutes, guilting me for thinking this was an appropriate movie for indulgences of any sort. Really, it should be best watched sitting bolt upright on a wooden bench, gulping a palmful of rainwater and eating one or two rancid sardines every hour or so.

The Last Temptation of Christ — that other Martin Scorsese movie about faith and persecution — is Jesus Christ Superstar compared to Silence, a deliberately paced epic about mental and physical anguish. A longtime passion project (so to speak), Silence is based on the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel inspired by the true stories of missionary priests in 17th century Japan. Having just defeated a Catholic uprising, the Tokugawa shogunate sought to eliminate the surviving Christ-worshippers.

In the film, Portuguese priests Sebastião (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco (Adam Driver) should probably take the hint that their chances of personally saving Japanese Christianity are minimal after they hear that their mentor Cristóvão (Liam Neeson) has apostatized and taken a Japanese wife so as to save himself and his followers from being hideously tortured to death. Still, disbelieving what they’ve heard, Sebastião and Francisco decide to set off for Japan (played here by Taipei) in search of Cristóvão.

If this is starting to sound a little bit like Heart of Darkness, you’re thinking along the right lines. I suspect that once this movie has been widely seen, there will be some discomfort regarding Scorsese’s apparent sympathies with the missionaries. These saintlike Jesuits, their sexy locks suggesting they’re ready to give the Young Pope a run for his money, meet perhaps the most sadistic Buddhists the cinema has ever seen. Not that Scorsese and cowriter Jay Cocks need to play fair — and the film is based on a Japanese novel — but you still have to question a movie that takes such a sympathetic look at colonial missionary work as seen through the Europeans’ eyes.

That said, Scorsese proves masterful at drawing us into an utterly absorbing milieu. Shot by Rodrigo Prieto in flat light by day and flickering flames by night, Silence creates a Japan where unknown threats are lurking around every corner. They almost never jump out at you, though: Scorsese works with seemingly infinite patience, and there’s even more where that came from. The film’s original cut ran to 195 minutes, longer than The Hateful Eight.

The film is practically stolen by — no, not Jesus, though He makes an appearance of sorts — Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige, an “inquisitor” who quietly delights in devising creative forms of torment to achieve maximum effect among onlookers. A Japanese actor and comedian, Ogata plays his quirky tyrant as though Scorsese told him to imagine what a James Bond villain might be like as an actual human being. He’s so endlessly watchable that his lengthy theological faceoffs with Garfield fly by.

(It’s worth noting that the real-life Masahinge was gay; the fact that this wicked character is full of amusing affects while the passionate but ostensibly asexual priests simply clutch one another in heroic solidarity adds yet another iffy dimension to Silence.)

Those long God talks work so well because even though Scorsese tips his hand — particularly in the film’s final moments and in a prominent dedication that appears in the credits — the screenplay is razor-sharp where it most needs to be, in those crucial conversations that illuminate Sebastião’s crisis of faith. Scorsese and Cocks need to make us understand why some priests went to the stake (or worse) for their beliefs while others openly forsook Christ and went to work for the shogun, and Silence pulls it off.

This film will make a fine subject for a future thesis comparing the films of Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, their generation’s two preeminent auteurs of cinematic martyrdom. Gibson delights in the gory glory of it all, rubbing his heroes’ faces in the blood and grit by way of showing us just how indomitable their spirits were. Scorsese, on the other hand, acknowledges that in reality, it wouldn’t take much gore and grit to make someone seriously question the point of it all.

For all the problematic aspects of Scorsese’s religious films, they’re actively curious about what it means to be simultaneously human and a believer. Gibson doesn’t seem to have any curiosity at all: he thinks he has all the answers. That’s a very dangerous belief.

Jay Gabler