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Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: Analyzing Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ as a Remake of His 1967 Debut

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“Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas and Mean Streets are all still Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

Back in 2015, when I chatted with filmmaker Ramin Bahrani about the similarities that 99 Homes bore to his earlier work, he cited Martin Scorsese as an example of a director who continues to essentially remake his first feature. Bahrani claimed it was a conscious decision for him to keep examining to the same themes and ideas from his debut; the implication was that each time he returned to the well, he would arrive with a fresh perspective.

Words tend to run together for me when interviewing filmmakers, but that line has always stuck with me. At the time, 99 Homes star Andrew Garfield was sporting the full beard and long locks that he needed to play the protagonist in Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence – a film kicking around in the director’s head for nearly three decades. So, rather than testing Bahrani’s theory in 2015, I decided to wait it out and examine Silence through the lens of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The films are separated by nearly five decades, and their scopes are about as far removed as their locations. But Bahrani is right. The bookends of Scorsese’s career make for a fascinating mirror image.

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Both films, at their core, are stories of human connection between men of deep religious conviction and an outside entity whose differing background and upbringing they greet with a mixture of understanding and suspicion. Garfield’s Fr. Rodrigues, a Portuguese missionary for the Jesuits in Japan, seeks to be a conduit and a mirror of Jesus in all his actions. Harvey Keitel’s J.R. in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, meanwhile, is a bit of a street hooligan, though he is still a man of clearly internalized Catholic dogma. It does not feel like any kind of a tremendous stretch to see these as avatars for the famously Catholic Scorsese himself, perhaps even alternate realities were he to follow religion with either pure asceticism or hedonism.

Rodrigues and J.R. spend most of their respective films grappling with what their faith means when confronted by forces that appear non-Christian to them. In Silence, Rodrigues ministers to the persecuted followers of Christ in Japan and encounters the way that their struggle for survival impacts their faith. The Japanese must practice their faith in secret, often without the help of religious objects or priests. Without these key instruments of the Catholic faith, they are repeatedly assured that it is their inward faith that God will see when considering them for paraíso — not their outward actions. The harsh regime of the country often rounds up Christians and pressures them to apostatize, or to renounce their faith by trampling on a sacred image of Christ. Rodrigues reluctantly endorses a utilitarian argument to perform the symbolic act, acknowledging that God will recognize the intent in their hearts. That stance is not one he comes to proffer easily, and it becomes the source of further agony when the choice of apostasy is put before him. Is he, as a man of the cloth, permitted the luxury of committing emblematic heresy when the repercussions affect more than just himself? If Rodrigues were to break, the Church in Japan could easily fall with him.

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J.R., on the other hand, struggles to reconcile his love for an unnamed girl played by Zina Bethune with her supposed impurity. The strangers bond while sitting on a bench; J.R. notices stills from a John Ford film on the girl’s French magazine, and thus the conversation begins. Their relationship eventually proceeds to the bedroom, where J.R. turns down sex so as not to spoil her. His mind has jumped ahead to marriage, where domesticity goes hand in hand with the Virgin Mary. (The opening scene of Who’s That Knocking at My Door establishes such a connection with some quick cross-cuts.) But once the girl discloses her brutal rape at the hands of a former flame, she appears unclean in J.R.’s eyes. This development effectively halts the progress of the relationship as the Madonna, from J.R.’s perspective, has now become the whore.

When backed into a corner, both Rodrigues and J.R. make self-preserving decisions that are not particularly reflective of Christ’s self-sacrificing example. (It must be noted, though, that the ethics of Silence are considerably less straightforward than Who’s That Knocking at My Door.) The male characters put their own sanctity above others, often hindering them from offering the comfort that person might need. Rodrigues puts his piety on a pedestal above the Japanese, steadfastly affirming that whatever collateral damage would occur from his apostasy far outweighs the deep personal sacrifices these persecuted practitioners face in personal renunciation of their faith. Time and time again, J.R. refuses to believe the girl’s story, even going so far as to declare “How can I believe you? How can I believe that story?” His faith in the divine looms large, yet he lacks considerable faith in the goodness of other people. Whether the most persistent criticism of Scorsese’s work — a perceived refusal to strongly disavow the dubious actions of a protagonist — applies to either feels left to the viewer in both cases.

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“They say that often a filmmaker’s first film can be his or her best,” mused Alexander Payne to NPR in 2013. “Why? Because he or she has been waiting 30, 35 years to tell that story. So a lifetime of whatever it is, frustration or observation, that all comes out.” Who’s That Knocking at My Door certainly bears the hallmarks of a personal calling card for Martin Scorsese, although the rough edges might prevent it from being deemed his greatest work. Silence, on the other hand, might well be his best. Scorsese’s latest film channels the same intellectual curiosity and spiritual fervor of his directorial debut, with the addition of nearly 50 years of experience in technical skill and storytelling precision.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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