SILENCE, MARTIN SCORSESE’S long-awaited epic of Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan, is not your typical Christmas movie. When I saw Silence on Christmas Eve, I had just fielded rebukes from my still-Catholic, Polish family, who called me from Poland to ask why I was in Los Angeles instead of home for the holiday. As I sat through the three-hour-long film, it felt like the old country had caught up with me. I found myself glowering at the screen with the rage of a trapped Sunday school pupil.
Silence is a film about varieties of guilt, each of which is represented as a particularly Catholic and particularly white experience. Repeatedly confessed, but also continually accumulating, guilt in the film becomes the basis of an unbreakable, quasi-familial relationship with Christianity. You can never become a perfect child of Christ, but you never stop seeing yourself as a Catholic, either. Silence also fulfills one unspoken goal of its protagonist’s mission: to aestheticize and glorify experiences of guilt to the point that it elevates its bearer rather than debasing him.
Based on a 1966 novel by the Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo, Silence tells a story set in the 1640s during Portugal’s heyday as a colonizing power. With other European rivals catching up to Portugal’s conquests in the New World and Asia, Lisbon continues to send Jesuit missions to Japan in hopes of converting some of its population to Catholicism, which would give them a political foothold in this otherwise hermetic country. Scorsese’s narrative follows the last two men who sail to Nagasaki as part of this missionary effort.
The two young priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), are pursuing a special assignment. Their spiritual father, a priest named Ferreira, whose mission in Nagasaki they were originally supposed to join, is rumored to have apostatized. Rodrigues and Garupe travel to Japan to find Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) and clear his name from calumny. But once they get to one of the villages neighboring Nagasaki, they begin to doubt the spiritual value of their presence among local converts, who suffer increasingly brutal repercussions for harboring them. After Rodrigues himself is imprisoned by a comically detached Inquisitor (played by the inimitable Issey Ogata), he discovers that father Ferreira had indeed renounced his faith several years earlier. Ferreira has since assimilated to the Japanese way of life, having married a local wife and taken up residence in a Buddhist monastery. After some harrowing scenes in which he watches government forces torture the same Christian villagers to whom he had ministered, Rodrigues apostatizes as well, in Ferreira’s footsteps. The film suggests that he then silently holds onto the memory of his Catholicism and harbors guilt about having outwardly renounced it for the rest of his life. Rodrigues’s lifelong guilty “silence” provides one of the meanings of Scorsese’s title; another is the silence with which Rodrigues reproaches Christ in the course of the film, as he calls out to him amid his trials but rarely receives answers.
A multitude of well-known cultural tropes and narratives are woven together in this story as Scorsese tells it. Silence echoes Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of God: it chronicles an epic journey of white men who aspire to become gods in a foreign land they do not understand, and it shows how that land’s inscrutable autonomy undoes them. Scorsese’s film also bears a strong relation to the old Hollywood classic Quo Vadis, as well as to Mel Gibson’s more recent The Passion of the Christ. It depicts religious faith, and Christianity in particular, as a set of ideals that you can only prove to others by suffering or dying for them. The film has clear sympathy, and even admiration, for people who are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of making the Heaven they await more present to others. In another sense, Silence is a film about sons trying to live up to their fathers’ ideals, and to be good surrogate fathers for people who, in turn, look up to them. The gendered nature of these relationships is crucial: in Silence, women, let alone female authority figures, are painfully nonexistent.
The linchpin that holds all of these tropes together is a pervasive ambiance of failure and inadequacy. Scorsese’s priests fail both as peaceful emissaries of Christ and as successful colonizers; they get blood on their hands without any new faithful recruits or any new business partners to show for it. Rodrigues also proves woefully inadequate as a religious martyr, unable to follow the example of the locals who give up their lives for a Christ whom — as the film somewhat patronizingly suggests — they do not even understand. As a son to his spiritual father, and as a father to his parishioners, Rodrigues similarly fails. Much as he identifies himself with Christ — to the point of hallucinating Christ’s face superimposed upon his own reflection in a stream — Rodrigues finds that none of the people around him see him as an example worth imitating. Indeed, the older men around him are almost always able to predict the outcomes of his actions and reflections, even as the young priest continues to find his own motives opaque and all-consuming.
The multitude of political, moral, and psychological failures is both a strength of this film and its weakness. On the one hand, Silence manages to isolate and meditate on a particularly Catholic kind of spirituality governed by helplessly perpetuated cycles of guilt and confession. A Catholic himself, Scorsese sets out to demonstrate the appeal of this form of spirituality, even as he occasionally allows us to see its inadvertent absurdity. In one such absurd subplot, Rodrigues’s guide Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) betrays his faith, his family, and his community, and then Rodrigues himself; each time, he comes back to Rodrigues to confess and ask for forgiveness. As Rodrigues absolves him with ritual gestures, time and again, Kichijiro’s remorse loses its pathos and becomes a running joke. The fact that Kichijiro can continue to see himself as a Catholic even after his numerous betrayals is a foil for Rodrigues’s own tormented relationship to his faith. Like Kichijiro, Rodrigues quietly holds on to his faith until he dies; he also seems to grapple with despair over remaining beholden to Christ even after he has lost hope of atoning for his many public acts of apostasy.
Scorsese’s vision of Catholicism reduces all human agency to such endless, and endlessly imperfect, efforts at grace. Its imperfection becomes all the more frightening, since, in the spiritual world that these characters inhabit, one cannot ever be sure of being saved through God’s mercy alone. How small an act of faith would suffice for God to decide to save you, after all you have done to reject him? Silence returns again and again to this question without ever emerging with answer. In a way that (as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane and others have observed) bears comparison to Robert Bresson, Scorsese thus attempts to give Catholicism a philosophical gravity that its flattened popular versions often lack. Behind the religion’s hierarchical and ritualistic veneer, Silence earnestly asks how a commitment to Christian values can be preserved and proselytized, even when the believer is too weak to uphold them consistently.
This is an idealized and intellectualized vision of Catholicism, no doubt, and one that purposefully shunts off-screen much of the reactionary conservatism with which contemporary Catholics are often associated. Indeed, it takes only the hint — which Silence does give us — of the homoeroticism of Rodrigues’s attachment to Christ, as well as to his fellow priests Ferreira and Garupe, to make one see how much the film’s notion of Christianity would be undermined by any attempt to take on these more embodied issues. The ethereality of this philosophical Catholicism thus comes to seem like a form of avoidance.
Scorsese’s film likewise avoids the critique of colonialism that it at first seems to promise. Viewers will find only token gestures of anti-imperialist critique, whose mellowness is supposedly justified by the fact that, as Scorsese depicts it, the Portuguese colonial mission in Japan was failing to begin with. The film’s noncommittal condemnation of Western imperialism is compounded by the script’s insistence that the main characters are speaking Portuguese, when what we hear is American English, delivered in a badly faked Zorro–meets–Shakespeare in Love accent. Indeed, English puns are unselfconsciously used as the basis of Ferreira’s argument against Rodrigues’s belief in the Catholicism of the villagers he tries to serve. Pointing to the sun, Ferreira tells Rodrigues that “Son of God” has been consistently mistranslated into Japanese as “Sun of God,” and Jesus’s rising from the dead has been reintegrated into the local understanding of the miraculousness of the rising of the sun. The cultural obliviousness of these gestures undercuts the film’s pretensions to reckon with this specific history of white colonization. It also underscores the viewer’s recurrent suspicion that, just as Father Rodrigues often seems more preoccupied with his own sense of self-worth than with the well-being of those around him, Silence is, at bottom, a film about the white man’s burden, rather than the burdens he places on others.
Combined with the film’s vaguely anti-Japanese bent — Japanese culture is represented as a kind of “beautiful evil,” as Rodrigues puts it, its achievements most pronounced in the art of slow torture with water, earth, and fire — the film’s lack of a real critique of its white colonizers makes one struggle to find in it the kind of multicultural perspective it seems, at first, poised to offer. Scorsese’s long pans onto indifferent, gorgeously misty hills and the commoners suffering in squalor amid them inevitably end in close-ups of Garfield’s handsome face, contorted with feeling. Those around the young priest might, at times, accuse him of arrogance and self-centeredness, but neither Rodrigues nor the film know how to escape it, except by having Rodrigues beat his breast about it occasionally. If this is Scorsese’s most philosophically ambitious and spiritually pure form of Catholicism, his film also inadvertently reveals its solipsism. The film fails at the very kind of empathy its missionaries supposedly aim to spread; Rodrigues cannot feel the pain of the Japanese Christians whom he sees tortured and killed, except as their pain provokes, or mirrors, his own suffering.
If I had been asked before seeing Silence what kind of movie the world needs this holiday season, “another film about white, Catholic men reaffirming their whiteness and their Christianity” would not have been my answer. Vaguely guilt-ridden, I tried to imagine the pious response the film might have elicited in my Polish Catholic relatives. Silence would offer them a dramatic confirmation of their faith’s value. The power with which it immerses viewers in its vast and misty religiosity is such that, in certain moments, even a cynic like myself can’t see her way beyond it. But once the lights go back on, one is relieved — or, at least, I was — to find that the only foggy hills around were those of Hollywood, and the only thing to confess was the failure to validate my parking ticket.
Marta Figlerowicz is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, Boston Review, Post45 (Contemporaries), Film Quarterly, and elsewhere.