Martin Scorsese has been known to make religious films even when he’s not. Raised in a devoutly Catholic family, his entire filmography could be viewed through a religious lens: Mean Streets focuses on a mafia member forced to reconcile his crimes with his Catholicism; Taxi Driver investigates a man’s saint-like attempt to eliminate his weaknesses; The Wolf of Wall Street represents a cautionary tale about people for whom wealth has replaced religion.
Now, it seems fitting that a director who has made us watch so much suffering has created a film that asks how we can watch so much suffering. In Silence, it’s Sebastian (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco (Adam Driver), two 17th century priests that are forced to watch the excruciating punishments inflicted on innocent Japanese Christians caught by the nation’s ruling inquisitors. It makes for a grueling, 240-minute exercise, and while the film’s masterful cinematography and wrenching performances combine to raise big questions that don’t always come up in mainstream cinema, Silence’s technical might has none of the quiet grace that a truly religious should have.
Silence has been called Scorsese’s passion project, and it’s been 30 years in the making. Based on a 1966 Japanese novel of the same name, the film follows Jesuit priests Sebastian and Francisco on a dangerous mission trip to Japan, where suspected Christian converts are liable to be killed by the Japanese authorities who want to suppress the rising European colonialist powers. With nothing but their faith and the clothes on their backs, Sebastian and Francisco set off to find their former mentor (Liam Neeson), an esteemed priest rumored to have converted to the Buddhism of Japan’s ruling class.
In the seaside village where they land, a community of secret Christians give the men shelter inside a wooden hut and show them where to hide beneath the floorboards (in case the inquisitors come knocking). The villagers treat the priests like Gods — which raises an important question. Could Sebastian and Francisco be taking satisfaction in their own worship? A telling moment occurs when Sebastian hallucinates the image of Jesus Christ — over his own face. Perhaps pride is as much of a driving factor as faith.
When the inquisitors ride into the village to expose the Christians, they have all the swagger of a classic Scorsese gangster. At times, the intellectual Silence starts to seem like an old-fashioned tale of the evil “other” versus the virtuous white man. The villagers become pawns in the inquisitors’ attempt to defeat the priests’ missionary spirits, and their punishments include burning, drowning, crucifixion and beheading. Reflecting the signature violence of the legendary director, the extended sequences of torture are reverently shot, but they’re also long and hard to watch. And like Sebastian and Francisco, viewers can only watch from the side. By depicting the brutality of the ruling authorities, the point seems to be that, like the missionaries, audiences can do nothing about it.
While some critics have called Silence “the last film one might expect to follow the bacchanalian excess of The Wolf of Wall Street,” I would argue the two films are perfect analogues. At the height of his powers as a filmmaker, Scorsese has the privilege of portraying extremes. In The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a man’s material and financial excess. In Silence, it’s the recess. Take away everything and what is left? Sebastian eats rice like a starving orphan. His clothes are like filthy bandages. For most of the film, his only companion is an immaterial god. In this place of nothingness, what is worth living for? The answer, in this case, is faith. It’s only too bad that faith comes in one form (Christianity) and Sebastian does indeed become a stand-in for the same Jesus Christ figure that has been martyred for centuries. In the end, Sebastian and Jordan Belfort aren’t that different. Both men are driven to impossible lengths to attain their fortunes: one in dollar bills, the other in stubborn faith. As in The Wolf of Wall Street and many of Scorsese’s films before it, there is little room for women, people of color or any other form of religion, including the hybrid form of Christianity invented by the Japanese villagers to suit their context.
When Francisco and Sebastian separate for the sake of their safety, Sebastian’s willpower is tested along with the audience’s patience. Sleeping beside rocks, starving and alone, the gaunt priest wonders how he can continue to pray to a god who will never answer back. Why, Sebastian wonders, does God do nothing when innocent Christians are being tortured and killed? It’s a timeless question and the film asks it again and again and again. After a while, it’s hard not to dislike Sebastian for continuing to believe, even when his disavowal could mean saving the lives of others. One might even start to wonder if atheists have a point: maybe we would be better off dropping this whole religion thing, because all it seems to do is cause pain.
Movie theaters are often compared to churches and, in the religion of motion pictures, Martin Scorsese is something of a high priest. If his movies weren’t instant classics upon release (The King of Comedy, Cape Fear), they have since become classics (having been touched by his holy glory). With this in mind, Silence remains a welcome addition to the Scorsese canon. For all its violence and grandiosity, it stands as an impressively filmed indictment against religious persecution. And with the presidency of Donald Trump weeks away, American moviegoers could and should be reminded of religious freedom’s importance. In the sold-out screening of Silence that I attended during the week after Christmas, it could also be said that the film’s mission was accomplished. When the credits rolled, the audience was stunned into silence. That is, until we stepped into the hall and heard the sounds of cell phones, popcorn popping and the score of Rogue One, streaming triumphantly out of the theater next door.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.