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My thoughts about “Silence”: I don’t know what it’s trying to say, and that’s its problem

January 31, 2017

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Garfield as Fr. Rodriques: You can just tell he’s gonna apostasize

I went to see “Silence,” and I’m of two minds.

I’d actually dreaded the experience. Having read Shusaku Endo’s novel and also seen the excellent 1971 Japanese adaptation of the novel (for which Endo himself was a screenwriter), I really wasn’t enthusiastic about viewing extenuated scenes of exquisitely gruesome Japanese torture, of which there was plenty in the 1971 movie–and I’ve also read “Unbroken” and seen “The Bridge on the River Kwai” a number of times, so I can’t really summon up much enthusiasm for boiling Westerners alive and hanging them upside-down in a pit while the blood slowly dripped out of their heads because 17th-century colonialism or whatever. I see your anti-Eurocentrism rant and raise you one Bataan Death March. My husband’s favorite uncle barely survived the Battle of the Coral Sea, so maybe I’m prejudiced.

Even worse, I dreaded seeing a movie whose subject matter might actually be not the brutal persecution of Christians under the Tokogawa Shogunate but Martin Scorsese’s tiresome conflicted views about the Catholicism in which he was raised. OK, Martin, we know you’re an ex-seminarian, so spare us. In any event, I dragged myself to “Silence” and covered my face with my hands during the most ghastly of the slow-mo executions. I’m a Catholic, after all. and I ought to face squarely what can happen to Catholics and their Christian brethren when they stand up for their faith. The 21 Coptic martyrs to ISIS in 2015 are the latest version of the 26 Catholic martyrs in Nagasaki in 1597–except that the lucky Copts were beheaded, not crucified. As the movie progressed, I couldn’t help wondering if I wouldn’t have betrayed Christ myself just to get out of being strapped to a cross for four days until I drowned in the ocean: Give me that fumi-e so I can step on it quick!

It turned out that “Silence” wasn’t as bad a movie as I’d expected–and in fact it had some very fine things going for it. As well as some disturbing negatives.

Pros:

1. The cinematography was spectacularly beautiful. The movie was visually haunting.

2. All the Japanese and Chinese actors were terrific. So was Adam Driver, who stole the movie as Garupe, the Jesuit sidekick who seems like the quieter and weaker counterpart of the more voluble and aggressive Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield)–but proves to be the stronger in every way. The gaunt Driver looked like an El Greco painting from the 17th century–so why didn’t he get the lead? And Liam Neeson is positively Satanic as Fr. Ferreira, the apostate priest turned Japanese Buddhist who employs every trick in the temptation-of-Christ playbook to persuade (successfully) Rodrigues to apostasize, too.

3. The movie treats the Catholic faith and the Catholic sacraments of the characters with extraordinary reverence. The scenes of the old Latin Masses brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, Fr. James Martin, S.J., consultant on matters Catholic and Jesuit for this movie.

4. The movie bucks the stance of today’s intellectual elites who regard Christian martyrs past and present as ego-trippers in it for the glory. These martyrs, chronically impoverished and exploited peasants regarded as human beasts of burden by their snooty samurai overlords, die humbly for their faith, displaying more raw courage than I’d expect of myself under the circumstances. They were incandescent.

Cons:

1. Did “Silence” really have to be three hours long? There were simply too many repetitive scenes–people trampling on the fumi-e over and over, for example. I actually got bored after a while, especially during the drawn-out denouement. At least a half-hour could have hit the cutting-room floor, probably more–but this is what happens when a director like Scorsese is so famous from his previous movies that he gets to call all the shots on his latest. A film editor should have reined him in.

2. Andrew Garfield. He was simply too pretty and too ebullient for his conflicted lead role. His kind of naive self-confidence worked well in “Hacksaw Ridge,” where the the hero in fact is a naively self-confident Christian whose brute commitment to his faith makes him a hero–but Garfield doesn’t do a good job playing self-doubt.

3. The sceenplay. The movie is kind of pat, suggesting that Rodrigues’ ultimate apostasy, trampling on the fumi-e in order to prevent further torture of Japanese Christians, is WJWHD–what Jesus would have done under the circumstances. And thus that Rodriques is ultimately redeemed. Endo’s novel and the 1971 film version is far more ambivalent about the price that Rodriques pays in order to save his own hide. Scorsese made a big long movie but he didn’t achieve what seems to have been his desired goal: a subtle examination of what it means to be a Christian.

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