God is, like Flaubert’s author, visible almost nowhere but present everywhere in Martin Scorsese’s period drama Silence (2016), unless by “visible” you include—as Orthodox Christians must—the numerous images of Christ throughout the film (hence “almost”). In order to retain their human dignity, the film’s heroes—three Jesuit priests from Portugal and numerous members of the underground Catholic Church in Japan—must render the visible image of God invisible, must demote God’s human visage from revered icon to “mere” iconography. They must (to borrow a verb from Willa Cather) Protestantize a holy image by reducing it to its material components. This happens in several painful scenes throughout the film, wherein Buddhist inquisitors force the Christians to stamp their feet upon various depictions of Christ or face a weak kind of martyrdom: not death, but unending physical and psychological torture. (The Japanese authorities have learned that murdering Christians only empowers the Church, and so they diabolically keep the would-be martyrs alive and suffering.) Major spoilers ahead: most of the Japanese Christians refuse to trample on the image of their Savior. Two of the three priests, whose suffering includes the knowledge that many others will face torture if they do not apostatize, eventually relent.
Silence is an extraordinary exercise in narrative control. From whose perspective do we watch the events unfold? At first we naturally identify with two of the young Jesuits, especially with the earnest, tender face of Andrew Garfield’s character, Father Sebastião Rodrigues. We never fail to understand Rodrigues’s plight: he is captured, he is tortured, he relents, and his apostasy is earned. No humane audience, not even a hardline Christian audience, can fail to sympathize with him. But then the film takes an unusual turn. Garfield’s performance becomes cold; his position in the film’s frame becomes more distant, less centered. He dons the formal attire and manners of the seventeenth-century Japanese gentry, so that, to Scorsese’s largely Western audience (the script is written primarily in English, standing in for Portuguese), Rodrigues seems suddenly remote and exotic. Rodrigues is no longer easy to identify with. His motives, once crystal clear, become opaque: has he truly apostatized in his heart? The film dodges that question with a number of visual and narrative clues that lead nowhere.
At this point in the story, the voiceover narration, which up till now has been delivered from Rodrigues’s perspective, shifts to the perspective of a minor character, a Dutch trader who writes home about the two strange Portuguese men who now live as Japanese men. They take Japanese wives. They adopt Japanese customs. They practice Japanese religion. From this perspective, we must conclude that they have sincerely apostatized. But is this perspective reliable? The Dutch trader’s narration is certain that Rodrigues has abandoned Christianity. But the visual clues—Garfield’s searching eyes; his ever-so-brief reluctance to renew his apostasy before the Japanese authorities; his apparent reluctance, then willingness, to hear the confession of a wayward Japanese Christian—clash with the voiceover’s certitude.
One could easily complain of the film’s shifting perspective, that it collapses under its own shifting tone and attitudes toward its main characters. I would argue, however, that a remarkable narrative continuity exists within the film. An early scene provides a clue. We meet Rodrigues and his compatriot, Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), at St. Paul’s College in Macau with their elder, Alessandro Valignano (Cirián Hinds). Valignano informs Rodrigues and Garupe that their mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has apostatized after enduring torture in Japan. The two young Jesuits insist that Ferreira’s apostasy can only be “slander” and “rumor,” and beg their elder to allow them leave to find Ferreira in Japan (which was then a society closed off to much of the world, under the rule of a sort of anti-trade “Japan First” regime). Valignano reluctantly agrees, and the three men exit St. Paul’s. We view them from a high-angle crane shot, directly above their heads, through a wide-angle lens. This is a God’s-eye view of the three men. Once we adopt a truly omniscient narrator, we can understand how the film can assume multiple perspectives (most notably Rodrigues’s and the Dutch trader’s) and maintain a narrative continuity within itself. We also understand how the film can assume such impossible perspectives as the final shot’s, wherein we look directly into the deceased Rodrigues’s casket and, practically, into his heart.
The final shot gives the game away perhaps too neatly, and we are left with little doubt about where Rodrigues stands in his heart. This is not a film about spiritual ambiguity and doubt, like so many contemporary religious films. It offers clear-cut answers. It knows more and says more than a typical narrative should. God is visible almost nowhere but is present everywhere, and in two scenes, He literally speaks (only a hardened cynic, including me during the first of the two scenes, might conclude that we are hearing the Devil’s voice instead of God’s).
I watched Silence at the beginning of Holy Week, and it seemed a fitting way to start. The film immerses you in God. Adopting a deific perspective,
I am eager to read the novel upon which the film is based, Shūsaku Endō’s Chinmoku (1966), to see how the balance of competing narratives plays out on the page. The novel had been previously adapted in 1971 by Japanese New Wave director Masahiro Shinoda; that adaptation is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel, and I plan to watch it sometime in the coming weeks. Silence was a passion project for Scorsese, one he developed over the course of a quarter century. It ranks as one of his religious masterpieces, along with Kundun (1997) and the films he produced in collaboration with screenwriter (and Calvinist) Paul Schrader: most notably The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), which together constitute the ultimate Good Friday and Holy Saturday movies. Silence belongs in the canon of great Christian films, along with the religiously themed films of Robert Bresson, Carl Th. Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Franco Zeffirelli, Krzysztof Kieślowski, William Peter Blatty, Terrence Malick, and, of course, Scorsese and Schrader. Scorsese dedicated Silence to the Christians of Japan and to their pastors.