Scorsese’s Silence or, a Lack of Faith

Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) falls short of the mark, and all the while is much too long. For all the desecration, heresy, and literal spitting on icons of Jesus and Mary in the film, the most abominable affront to the Christian faith was the film itself. In this, it is the form, rather than the content that is upsetting and disconcerting. I was more perturbed as a film nerd than a Christian (some of my favorite movies are aggressively heretical — Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom, new French extremism, Cronenberg, body gore, etc etc etc — stuff that actively works against the Christian doctrine and teachings and prides itself on being degenerate art).

Silence was not comparable to any of the aforementioned films. Supposedly adapted from the 1966 historical fiction novel by Shusaku Endo, Scorsese’s Silence bears little resemblance to a typical Scorsese film — stylistically sound, kinetic, thrilling, gritty. Silence lacks all the motion and rhythm of a blockbuster film, and yet lacks the nuance and artistic auteurism of a typical Criterion-focused arthouse film. In this, it is a complete failure, pleasing neither mainstream audiences nor academics/scholars/film buffs/film critics. Only the diehard Scorsese fans will enjoy it, because they’ll enjoy just about anything.

The casting of Andrew Garfield as Father Sebastião Rodrigues, a 17th Century Jesuit priest from Portugal, comes as a surprise, insofar as he is Jewish (playing a European Catholic) and that mainstream audiences will most likely recognize him from The Social Network (2010), in which he plays Eduardo Saverin, a Brazilian jew. It’s tough to get this imagine out of one’s head while watching the film. Nevertheless, that’s certainly not a concrete enough critique, given acting is what actors do, and one’s heritage should not necessarily define the roles in which one is cast (though this is a pretty blatant miscasting, especially during a time of #oscarssowhite and the Scarlett Johansson — Ghost in the Shell controversy).

Garfield-as-Rodrigues is a bad Jesuit. He lacks the will-to-power, humility, and wisdom of Jesuit soldiers who attempt to follow in the ilk of St. Ignatius of Loyola. At times, I questioned whether anyone involved in the movie — Scorsese, Garfield, Driver, Neeson — had read the Bible at all. The movie attempted to pose some faith-shattering questions, about suffering, God’s silence, tested faith, the death of peasants and the undeserving, the salvation of a constant sinners who still repent, etc. — Many of the answers to these questions are spelled out word-for-word in the Bible, but in Silence, the characters are at a loss for words. It takes only the slightest possible contradiction in Christian doctrine for the priests to question their faith. On top of these issues, they speak English and ask the audience to pretend it’s Portuguese; the mispronounce the words of the Latin mass; and they evoke little sympathy for their cause as missionaries (the Japanese seem very much in-the-right throughout the entire movie). Even the torture and violent scenes (there are very few) lack intensity and awe.

The rhythm of the movie is a flat line with lazy interjections of plot. For a religious movie about faith in a foreign land, the movie entirely lacked the profundity it attempted to achieve. The Revenant (2015) was much more inspiring, thrilling, beautiful, and emotional than Silence, and faith was not even a question in The Revenant, yet it made me (and others, I hope) question and consider faith, friendship, love, revenge, suffering, solitude, and betrayal.

If anything can be gleaned from watching this film, it is that content often does not match up with form — the more profound and religious a movie attempts to be, the more flat it may fall with audiences. One can be moved by the most banal of film, and bored by the most spiritual.

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