Film Reviews

Ghoshen reviews the latest film by Martin Scorsese, with Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson as actors.

Silence film posterMartin Scorsese has made three films of a religious and/or spiritual nature, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) and now Silence. I was deeply impressed by the first, entertained by the second, and somewhat flummoxed by the third, which is the subject of this review.

Set in the early 1600s, Silence is the story of two young Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to try to find their mentor who has disappeared there and, according to uncertain accounts, apostatized. The pair, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, steal into the country, happen to find a village where all the inhabitants have converted to Catholicism and are delighted to welcome the fathers. Christianity was banned in Japan at the time and it is not long before they run into the Japanese Inquisition. And if you thought the Spanish Inquisition was bad, it was a walk in the park compared to the Japanese. After many adventures and the death of one of them, the other does eventually find his long-lost mentor, wonderfully played by Liam Neeson.

The biggest problem I have with Silence is this: It may be historically true that there was a flourishing but underground adoption of Christianity in seventeenth-century Japan but, at least as Silence depicts it, it is mighty hard to believe. For a start, it seems preposterous to me that Japanese would so eagerly embrace Catholicism considering how different, alien even, it must have been to their own Buddhist-influenced culture. Beyond this, it seems odd that they would be as fervent, as intensely devoted to it as are many of the characters in this drama. We see several examples of villagers who are willing to lay down their lives before renouncing their faith. The piety displayed in the most extreme cases is touching but also pathetic and close to laughable.

Another thing that bothers me is that a substantial number of these converts, most of whom are simple peasants, speak almost fluent Portuguese. This seems highly improbable. (Actually in the film, they speak English but historically it would have been Portuguese.) Then there is the quirk that most of the dialogue is in English (standing in for Portuguese) but the Japanese speak among themselves in Japanese (while we read subtitles). Why convert one language but not the other?

I understand that a lot of viewers are baffled by Silence. Its message is dramatized only at the end and even then remains obscure. I am not sure that I even completely understand what Scorsese’s intention is but there is one powerful message that I take from the film. It is that, no matter how sustaining, how uplifting, how glorious faith may be, there are situations where one has to put it aside and simply do the right thing. Elsewhere I have heard this described as the message of the man on the cross. You know that the thing to do is the right thing because, when you stand above your conditioning and your beliefs, it is the only thing left to do.

One could easily take the film to be a polemic against religious faith although that is clearly not Scorsese’s intention. Sannyasins are, I suspect, especially likely to see it in this way, as a dramatization of how absurd and self-defeating faith can be. At the same time though, it may make us acutely aware of our own conditioning to reject belief, as it did for me. Several people have pointed out in recent years that, while Osho was de-conditioning us, that left us with a conditioning of its own, perhaps a very light conditioning but still a conditioning.

We may take away a strong message from the film such as the one I mentioned above. And maybe there is a more esoteric message that I missed. But is it worth it? I suggest not. While none of it is at all gratuitous, one has to sit through a story that includes scenes of very graphic, inventive and horrific torture. And that’s not to mention the agony of a two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time. Other reviews of Silence range from calling it a masterpiece to deeming it a failure. For me it is a well-meant piece of filmmaking that nevertheless ends up being a gruesome and tedious spectacle that offers little reward.

GhoshenGhoshen is a regular contributor to this magazine

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