Is ‘Silence’ Scorsese’s Attempt To Suggest All Inquisitions Matter?

Is questioning one’s faith really so profound? Judging by Silence, Martin Scorsese seems to think it is, but I’m not so sure. After Gangs of New York I became convinced that I could sit through any Scorsese film, story arc or not, on the strength of production and costumes and acting alone (the vests, the top hats, the butchering — I could watch that all day). But Silence feels more performative than personal, more like public penance than honest introspection. And thus, maybe a bit of a lie?

It’s only when I truly don’t enjoy a movie I’ve just watched that I leave the theater wondering what the “point” of it was, and I was trying to determine what I was supposed to be getting from Silence long before the credits had even rolled (two hours and 45 minutes, by the way, plus an unplanned 25 or so during my screening, when the sound lost sync two thirds of the way through and they had to restart the reel — I’m sure that affected my experience somewhat). Mostly I came away with the knowledge that the 1600s sucked. A lot.

Directed by Scorsese, adapted by Jay Cocks from Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, and supposedly 28 years in the making, Silence tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), who has supposedly “apostatized,” renouncing Christ and taking a Japanese name and wife. Renounced Christ under torture? Not our Tony, it can’t be!

Were the Jesuits really such rubes? Didn’t Jesus himself even call out to God while he was being tortured?

In any case, they undertake this journey at a time when feudal Japan is instituting fierce isolationism, trying to stamp out foreign influence through brutal repression of foreign things, with Christianity at the top of the list. Burn them, hang them, beat them, drown them, tie them upside down with heads buried underground — oh yeah, they’ve got tortures. No shortage of those. The place is like an amusement park for morbid Catholics looking to test their faith and really get close to God through physical trials. What fun!

It would’ve been nice if Scorsese and Cocks had set up the who, what, where, why of the story a little better in the beginning, which you’d think they had ample opportunity to do in one of Silence‘s numerous expository voiceovers from various characters (you’ll go nuts trying to figure out rhyme or reason behind them). Instead, it’s a little unclear exactly where the priests are or how they get to Japan. They hopscotch around from Portugal (or at least an unidentified place we don’t find out is Portugal until much later) to Macau to Japan, as if those journeys were a breeze in 1640. Why not just use a dotted red line, Indiana Jones-style? This breezy fast forward allows the film much more time in Japan itself. And there? Well, there it’s just a brutal, repetitive dirge.

In the world of Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver), faith is sacrifice, and so it is they beg to be allowed to undertake this suicide mission to Japan, where they nonetheless find a thriving (though brutally persecuted) community of English-speaking believers (English being a stand-in for Portuguese, apparently, which, again, we don’t find out until later).

With the help of their drunken, rat-like fixer, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), Rodrigues and Garrpe connect with this society of secretly-Christian Japanese, who take them in, beside themselves at finally having priests to confess to. That the Japanese Christians might not have been able to reach paradise without the priests helps them justify their presence, at least before the murders start.

These Japanese, unfortunately, converse in speech that, partly thanks to the movie magic of language substitution (English is Portuguese, Portuguese is English, Japanese is still Japanese), has the unfortunate distinction of being both obnoxiously broken and unrealistically proficient. These characters convey non-complex thoughts haltingly, and yet you still marvel at being expected to believe that this many people speak passable English (er, Portuguese) on a fiercely isolationist island where it’s prohibited. Would pure subtitles have been a better solution? Maybe. Or should the film have focused more on the language barrier itself? Sure. The way it is, it’s a blatant conceit, which is the kind of thing that’s supposed to make a film more watchable, but in this case just makes it more tiresome.

Even aside from the language, though, there’s a striking lack of depth to these characters. The Japanese are all either noble penitents, sneering villains, or mischievous scamps. Which feels… uh… yeah, I’ll just say it, a little racist, even if I give Silence the benefit of the doubt on the Mickey Rooney accents (I suppose an accent can’t be racist in and of itself if it’s reasonably accurate) and the buck-toothed inquisitor who looks and sounds more than a little like a WWII propaganda cartoon.

Oh that’s right, Silence has an inquisitor. And get this: this time it’s the Catholics who are being inquisited upon! By Buddhists! Wild, right? Was this Scorsese’s purpose in all this, to show us that Catholics got as well as they gave? That they only undertook all that normally-negatively-depicted, converting-the-natives stuff because of an intense altruism? That’s certainly a take, but it doesn’t seem like a novel enough one to support this predictable and generally un-fun a movie.

Silence feels very much like an #AllInquisitionsMatter take on 17th century religion, not that I really needed a film to remind me that no one race, creed, or nationality has a monopoly on monstrousness. And besides, if the Japanese were doing to the Christians in Japan more or less what the Catholics were doing to the Jews and Protestants in Spain, what are we learning? As Silence‘s own language swap proves, if you just change the name on something it’s basically the same thing.

I’m being harsh (and again, I won’t pretend that having to sit through 20 minutes of an already long movie twice didn’t play a factor). It’s not that this story didn’t need to be told, I just wish it had been told better. As it is, it’s very hard to identify with anyone in this story. You mostly just want to get away, and I have to think that’s partly a failure of imagination. Rodrigues and Garrpe, cooped up in a one-room shack during daylight hours at first to hide from the inquisitor’s spies, carp at each other about the conditions, but they can’t seem to be able to decide if they want their lives to be harder or easier. Later, they’re forced to question which is the most Godly thing to do: keep trying to serve the Christian Japanese, even as the inquisitors slaughter them, or just leave the poor bastards alone.

The inquisitors, for their part, actually seem somewhat reasonable in conversation, torture notwithstanding. All they claim to want is for the priests (or priest, really, poor Adam Driver looks like he starved himself half to death for this awful movie that he’s only in for about 15 minutes) to realize that Christianity, which might be “the truth” in Europe, does not work in Japan. It’s like a tree whose roots rot in the “swamp” of Japan, they say. Of course, these priests believe that any such admission that the truth is mutable, or even the smallest symbolic gesture, like putting their foot atop an idol of Jesus, is a threat to their very soul. And so they don’t do it, even as the inquisitor does monstrous things to the Japanese Christians in front of them.

If you think this is so profound a spiritual conflict that you could watch it play out over and over again for almost three hours, then boy, Silence is the movie for you. Me, I tend to think repetition has a way of dulling profundity. Not to mention, these priests don’t ever seem to ask themselves the obvious questions. Namely, if God is all around us at all times, what the f*ck would it matter if you stepped on a child’s drawing of his son? You’re standing on God’s face every hour of every day, not to mention pissing and shitting on him every time you go to the bathroom. You’re letting people get disemboweled over this? How is this even a question? I’m not trying to blaspheme, but I need this movie to at least address this. I thought the whole East-West church schism was about the West being against idol worship.

Silence feels like it wants to make a show of these people questioning their faith, but it’s always in this arm’s length, lionizing, wasn’t-grandad-a-tough-ol-bird kind of way. I know real people died over this. I know they fought wars over the finer points of even more ridiculous religious esoterica, like whether the communion actually, physically turns wine into Jesus’s blood and flesh or if it’s just a metaphor. But I refuse to believe that the 17th century didn’t have a single relatable person or substantial female. The Silence characters I identified most closely with ended up being the torturing murderous Japanese who rightly wondered, “Jeez, why don’t these arrogant freaks just shove off home?”

That’s somewhat novel, I suppose, making us identify with the inquisitors, intentional or not, but not quite novel enough to compel me to want to sit through more of this dull, dour, morbid slog. It’s far too repetitive, and far too predictable.

It’s a film about Catholicism in 17th century Japan and watching it feels like sitting through someone else’s church service — long and arcane with everyone wallowing in deeply felt emotions that you don’t quite understand. Is the dry, crowd-punishing Silence Martin Scorsese’s public penance for making fraud seem so fun in Wolf of Wall Street? The fact that he wanted to show it to the Pope suggests that maybe it is. If so, I’ll take evil Scorsese over good Scorsese any day of the week and twice on the Sabbath. Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.