Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Fear and Trembling

Liam Neeson in Silence (Cappa Defina Productions)

It is a shame on two levels that Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the director’s long-gestating epic about missionaries in 17th-century Japan, did not earn a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar nomination. First, because it deserved one. Second, because it would have brought Scorsese and Mel Gibson together, since the latter, in a coup for his comeback, won Picture and Director nominations for the World War II movie Hacksaw Ridge . . . whose star, Andrew Garfield, is also the star of Silence, playing in both cases men of Christian zeal.

Gibson and Scorsese are not often considered as a diptych, but they should be, and not only because both are great entertainers who are bloody-minded in their own distinctive ways. They also have a kind of theological kinship, occupying two poles of Catholic artistry in an age of Catholic civil war — Scorsese the anguished liberal, heterodox and doubting yet unable to escape the Church’s hold on his imagination; Gibson the mad traditionalist, painting a medieval religious vision on the canvas of late-modern cinema.

Often it is Gibson’s Catholicism that is more overt, but with Silence we have a Scorsese film that cuts to the heart of his own uncertain faith. It also cuts to the heart, in striking ways, of the great Pope Francis–era debate within the Roman Church about sin and mercy, remarriage and the sacraments, and how the Church should or shouldn’t bend to contemporary mores. (Warning: Spoilers lurk below.)

The script is a largely faithful adaptation of the novel by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic novelist with ambivalent feelings about both his nation and his faith. The protagonist and narrator is Father Rodrigues (Garfield), a young Portuguese Jesuit who enters Japan amid a brutal persecution of Christians, in search of both converts who need priests and his missing mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).

Rodrigues has two companions, a fellow Jesuit, Father Garupe (Adam Driver), and a Japanese guide, the tormented Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who has a history of apostasy and a hunger for confession — a cycle that repeats itself whenever danger looms. In the film’s moving first act, the two priests find a village of secret Catholics and minister to them, hearing confessions and saying Mass in the depths of night while being hidden in a hillside hut above the village and the sea.

In the second act, the authorities sweep in and the suffering begins — baroque in its cruelties, ruthless in its methods, all designed to extirpate a faith that just a few decades earlier had claimed hundreds of thousands of converts.

The Jesuits split up and go on the run; Rodrigues is captured and taken to the inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata, giggly and insinuating), expecting to face swift martyrdom. But he doesn’t get it. Inoue’s strategy is to torture and kill Christian peasants, in increasingly hideous fashion, all the while telling Rodrigues that he can end their suffering and save their lives if he commits a simple act of apostasy by planting his foot upon a fumie, a sacred image of the Christ.

The priest resists for a time, but then Father Ferreira is brought to him: his former mentor, now with a Japanese name and wife, who passed through the same trial and chose apostasy. In Neeson’s rumbling tones, Ferreira insists (in an echo of Inoue’s rhetoric) that Christianity could never have taken root in Japan anyway, and he urges the young priest to betray his faith as an act of higher charity and mercy. Then, in the hour of crisis, the image of the fumie itself seems to tell Rodrigues the same thing — he hears Jesus’s voice freeing him to stomp upon his savior, and in agony he does just that.

Is it really Jesus? Is apostasy really a higher form of mercy where others’ lives are on the line? Endo’s novel is ambiguous, but my sense is that he inclined in that direction; based on interviews, so does Scorsese, and so does his Jesuit adviser on the film, the well-known author Father James Martin. And strikingly (if nor surprisingly), Father Martin’s argument about the movie’s in extremis situation is very similar to the arguments deployed by some of Pope Francis’s circle on the moral issues of our day — that there is God’s law, yes, but for the discerning and hard-pressed, for the relief of immediate human suffering, Jesus makes exceptions.

The fact that I am on the other side of this intra-Catholic argument means that you might not trust my critic’s judgment fully on this point, but I think that what’s on screen in Silence actually undercuts this perspective even if Scorsese personally favors it, and makes the apostasy seem more like a straightforwardly tragic fall. The case for apostasy is a tempter’s case, delivered by a sinister torturer and a broken, self-justifying father figure. The cinematography around the moment of crisis is infernal, not celestial. The aftermath — corruption, collaboration, the triumph of the persecutors — seems to make ridiculous the idea that this achieved a higher good.

But certainly we can say that Scorsese is ambivalent — that violence and suffering, so often featured in his art, also fill him with a horror that makes relieving it seem like the ultimate moral absolute. And this, to close the circle, is part of what makes the contrast with Gibson so interesting, because the traditionalist Catholic is in love with suffering — the war in Hacksaw, the hunt in Apocalypto, the execution in Braveheart, and of course the Cross in The Passion — in a way that assumes, perhaps past the point of theological plausibility, that all wounds are a path to apotheosis.

Both filmmakers are telling stories about the places where pain and transcendence meet; both ask where God is when we are suffering, which burdens we must bear and which can be set down. In this contrast between their intended answers, a great deal of modern Catholic uncertainty is gathered up.

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