With “Silence,” cinema’s high priest, Martin Scorsese, returns to the pulpit

The greatest living filmmaker's passion project stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan

Cinema is a religion. It’s obvious, and I’m certainly not the first one to say so.

Its adherents gather at scheduled times in designated spaces, which can range from the boxy and merely functional to the grandiose and inspiring. There they sit in ordered rows, gazing in a common direction, contemplating things which don’t physically exist but which possess an enhanced reality all their own.

Why do they do it? They’re hoping for a transcendent experience, at best. Or maybe just a deeper appreciation of the human condition. Or an illustration of moral principles. Or to be distracted from their mundane and inevitably truncated lives. Or just to be alone together among like-minded folks.

And that’s just the parishioners. For those who craft the rituals, who write the script(ure)s, who spin the mysteries, it’s a calling–often a lifelong one. Of the many filmmakers who fit this description–the Tarantinos, the Truffauts, the Kurosawas–none exemplifies the notion of director-priest as much as Martin Scorsese.

Director Martin Scorsese on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films

Raised Catholic, he at one point considered a career in the actual priesthood. For fifty years, his films have incorporated Catholic imagery and archetypes: the guilt of Harvey Keitel’s character in “Mean Streets,” the Madonna/whore complex of “Taxi Driver,” the mortification of Jake LaMotta’s flesh in “Raging Bull,” the Manichean struggle between good and evil in “Cape Fear,” and more.

He’s only ever made three films that center explicitly on religion, however, and only two that directly address Christianity. (1997’s “Kundun” depicts the early life of the Dalai Lama.) There was, of course, 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the famously controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel. And now comes “Silence,” a project which, like “Temptation,” the director has been wanting to realize for decades.

“Silence” is also based on a novel, this one by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō and published in 1966. (It was first adapted for film by Japanese director Masahiro Shinoda in 1971.) And, like “Temptation,” “Silence” wrestles with agonizing theological dilemmas, most prominently the willingness of a supposedly omniscient and omnipotent God to allow human suffering.

The story is set in 17th century Japan, at a time when a once-thriving community of Roman Catholic missionaries and local converts had been driven underground by a campaign of brutal repression and torture by ruling authorities desperate to drive European influence from the country. Two young Portuguese Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), travel to Japan to investigate reports that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apostatized, a notion they find difficult to believe.

Arriving surreptitiously, they are sheltered by a small group of Japanese Christians, but eventually their search for Ferreira brings them into conflict with the local Inquisitor (Issey Ogata). His method is to force any suspected Christians to renounce their faith by stepping on a crudely carved image of Christ known as a fumie. Those who refuse are tortured to death, either by being tied to a cross in shallow seawater and left to drown in the incoming tide, or by being hung upside-down in a pit to bleed out from a shallow cut on the neck. In the movie’s central moral dilemma, the priests, after refusing to step on the fumie, must watch as ordinary believers are killed. Meanwhile, of course, God fails to intervene.

L-R: Adam Driver plays Father Garupe and Andrew Garfield plays Father Rodrigues in the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films

“Silence” is a deeply felt, superbly shot, challenging film, even for a longstanding non-believer like your correspondent. Unlike so much of what gets dubbed “faith-based” cinema, it takes the conundrums and paradoxes of belief seriously. Perhaps, along with “Temptation,” it should be classified as “doubt-based” cinema, not because it rejects or dismisses its characters’ steadfast theism, but because it acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining it.

The casting was a cause for concern, as it had been for “The Last Temptation of Christ.” (Remember Keitel’s New York accent as Judas Iscariot?) The joke has already been made that “Silence” could be described as “Spider-Man and Kylo Ren go in search of Qui-Gon Jinn,” and putting actors known for roles as comic-book heroes or light-saber wielders into a historical, ascetic, grueling environment carries risks.

Garfield, who does most of the heavy lifting, performs admirably, though, and Driver continues to demonstrate an ambitious and evolving talent. The only awkward moments, in fact, come from Ogata, a performer best known in Japan as a comedian, who uses a bizarre delivery and thick accent when delivering the Inquisitor’s dialogue.

Coming back to the notion of the cinema as religion and the movie theater as a church, it’s disappointing that “Silence” is opening in Portland, at least initially, only at the antiseptic arthouse multiplex known as the Regal Fox Tower. (I’ve always enjoyed imaging the monarchical vulpine who must dwell on the top floor of that downtown skyscraper.) More even than most films, it deserves to be experienced in a sacred space, among an audience that takes it seriously.

Would a decent churchgoer chomp on popcorn in the middle of a service? Or rattle the ice in their beverage cup? Or check their text messages? These are sins that even the most merciful celluloid deity would find difficult to totally forgive. Just remember, there’s nothing wrong with turning around and saying “Shhhh.” Especially during a movie called “Silence.”



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