Subversive imperialist critique helps complicate Scorsese’s latest.
Near the beginning of1927’s Metropolis, a woman holding secret congregation in ancient catacombs recounts the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel to highlight moral and economic disparity between the planning and working classes. Her audience know nothing of religion, only of legends that speak of hope in their world of toil and suffering.
It’s 1639 and the Japanese shogunate have just quashed the Shimabara Rebellion of Catholic peasants. The persecution of overtaxed, starving farmers drives them further and further into their faith. They know the religion speaks of hope and willfully endanger themselves for its simple relief. Silence, Martin Scorsese’s complex agnostic opus, tells their story through the deteriorating aspirations of evangelical Portuguese priests.
The gaunt Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) and lion-maned Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) smuggle themselves into Japan in search of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a former mentor whose body and soul have been threatened in the course of his duties.
They are joined by the drunk pseudo-Christian Kichijirō (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a tortured fool in the spirit of Kyoami in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran that acts as the animal id in the face of faith. He is both guide and betrayer in the name of self-preservation, with a physical clownishness meant to symbolize earthiness and human fallibility. His continued appeal for forgiveness bitterly personifies Catholic guilt, a struggle with the demands of faith that Rodrigues imagines himself above.
Rodrigues, imbued with a youthfully fragile confidence by Garfield (though his accent has to grow on you), cannot conceive of failure. His faith is full and fearless. When hiding in an isolated cottage from those that wish to persecute them, he answers the door to disembodied voices proclaiming Christianity. Like the dodo, the young priest came up in safe isolation (both physical and ideological) and, fearing no predators, sees only victory or glorious martyrdom at his end. His arrogance is meticulously flayed away by his eventual Japanese captors as they wound his mind with interrogations and his heart with the visions of those he’s selfishly endangered.
Scorsese adapts this harrowing transformation from Shūsaku Endō’s novel of the same name, whose plot focuses even more on the duality of the Japanese Christian and the discriminating government. In this national complexity, the director of The Last Temptation of Christ finds a personal battleground. His swaggering directorial machismo is gone (except for a few too many voiceovers), replaced with beautiful contemplation that matches the location. The urban recklessness of his camera has calmed to a natural elegance. Depictions of violence are tortuous and bleak, shots held long out of respect for their victims’ plights. Graphic shocks, long the punctuation of Scorsese, scale down and elongate into Promethean brutality. It’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai of religious arguments – uninterested in conversion or affirmation, it crafts a simple case of irony that coats the West and its God in questions.
These questions would seem vacuous without an equally complex cadre of dissenters. Scorsese’s Japanese characters leap from the screen with metered, bureaucratic vitriol thanks to full-fleshed writing and the film’s best acting. Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), a legendary persecutorial figure to those who huddle in unlit rooms around a small carved figure of Christ, addresses his country’s socio-religious concerns with impish professionalism. His wavering piccolo voice and constant verbal barbs most closely resemble a falsetto Walter Huston as the Devil, mocking and worldly. He’s funny and goofy, an entertaining villain in a film whose heroes are dour and whose victories must ache. He talks down to Rodrigues not out of disrespect for his faith but out of practicality, the deliciously utilitarian language of defeat.
This defeat seduced Ferreira and Neeson’s shameful perseverance lines the character’s face. He and Rodrigues’ interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, sly and devastatingly articulate) backhandedly call Japan a “swamp” where the greenery of Western religion cannot take root. That Rodrigues considers this swampland argument is a testament to his religious failings and Scorsese’s critique of the conventional historical imperialist narrative. By positing that Japan is unfit for Christianity, doubt grows in the bog. Watching believers forced to deface a fumi-e, a likeness of Christ, or bleed slowly over a pit after recanting, Rodrigues must dismantle his own faith in the unrelenting silence of self-doubt.
The lives and souls of those faithful are what his career and his life has taken responsibility. Similarly, this film gazes upon Scorsese’s collective filmographic themes. Silence asks whether the poor masses of the Edo period or the futuristic Metropolis deserve anything more or less than their workaday simplicity and who, if anyone, can be tasked to give it to them. On Taxi Driver, featuring another isolated sufferer, Andrew Sarris questioned how many times you can use 42nd St. as a metaphor for Hell. For Scorsese and Silence’s constant grappling, faith seems to be its own geographically autonomous Purgatory.