It’s easy to be a saint in Paradise – Capt. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
The opening to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets begins with a black screen as we hear the director’s voice-over “You don’t make up for your sins in Church, you do it in the streets at your home. The rest is Bullshit and you know it” While the 1973 film isn’t technically his first, it does serve as the perfect opening to the filmmaker’s legendary career as it is the first time he made a film that he truly revealed himself in. Focusing on a group of morally adrift people trying to find themselves in a sea of criminal temptations. It’s similar subject material found in some of his other films and is emblematic of Scorsese’s conflict for some 50 years: the creation and resilience of one’s unique identity vs. the laws/rules/obligations that lead to conformity within the rest of society. The legendary filmmaker may venture into different genres and settings but it is the central conflict that runs through them. While certainly a departure in tone, pacing, and characters (Especially from Wolf of Wall Street, which still astounds me how much of a gear shift there is between the two works) his latest historical drama Silence is very much in the same vein
In 17th Century Feudal Japan, two Jesuit Priests Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) are sent from Portugal to find their lost mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has supposedly apostatized, renounced, the Catholic Faith after suffering through extreme physical and mental torture. For years the Japanese government has banned the teaching and practicing of Christianity on its shore’s, leading to execution and torture of followers and Priests of missionary work. Knowing the dangers the two young priests secretly travel to the east coast islands with the help of a drunken guide named Kichijiro (An excellent Mifune-esque Yōsuke Kubozuka) to find any information on their mentor. Kichijiro eventually leads them to small pockets of Christian believers who hide the priests at the risk of their lives. While secretly conducting mass, confessions, and baptisms the two priests feel like they are continuing the church’s missionary work for the greater good. However, they also know that they can be found out at any time and face, along with their dedicated followers, unimaginable torture and/or death.
Silence is a staggering, emotional, violent, pensive, complex and weighty film that centers on a central conflict that comes with belief: the Silence of a higher power in the face of horrific suffering inflicted on followers. Scorsese has dealt with Catholic themes of morality before and directly faith-based dramas with the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun but never before has he rendered so unflinchingly on-screen the human conflicts with faith and fallibility of belief. When the film eventually centers on Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues we are put on a journey in a similar scope to Apocalypse Now in showing the effects of being completely out-matched and showing the horrors of inhumanity in stark realism. The focal point is with the notorious inquisitor of Nagasaki, Inoue (A physically unimposing but psychologically brutal Issy Ogata), carries out his orders viciously and sadistically in putting down the foreign religion. Garfield is able to give us an amazingly intense and introspective performance of the young priest who begins to develop a deep crisis of faith in seeing so many Japanese Christians tortured and put to death in the face of God’s seeming apathy and silence.
The source material, adapted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is the 1966 book of the same name by Shûsaku Endô and is a landmark of its time, a lucid meditative journey of the faith solidified, eroded, and perhaps redefined. Scorsese was handed the novel after his aforementioned The Last Temptation of Christ premiered to extreme controversy and acted in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. He has spent decades since trying to get this passion project to the screen and clearly has brought a personal edge to the work. However, he is also able to make Rodrigues’ internal crisis a carefully rendered universal one found in all followers of any belief system. Proving that doubt is a powerful counterpunch to faith when pushed to limit.
The narrative also touches on and questions the nature of the Catholic Church’s missionary work perhaps supplanting the domestic culture to conform to a more European one. Many conversations focus on examining the impact of teaching people a concept as deeply rooted in the Western world as Christianity to the poorest of the Japanese people. Couldn’t it be considered a form of colonization than spreading the word of God? And when Rodrigues is watching all the suffering by other people deciding not to act, lest he is discovered by the authorities, isn’t that a form of egotism that the Church looks down upon? It’s a series of contradictions, implications, and ambiguities that are brought to the surface and hang over the piece for the audience to try to take in and contemplate for long after the film’s powerful ending.
I could go on about Rodrigo Prieto’s immaculate camera-work, the outstanding performances from the rest of the Japanese cast (Tadanobu Asano as the Inquisitor’s interpreter is another standout, voicing brutal reasoning with an eerie calmness), or the subtle soundtrack and sound design that dares to immerse you in the sounds of nature surrounding the violent events but really I want all those aspects to speak for themselves. Coming in as someone who isn’t affiliated with organized religion the film is a fascinating examination of the deep seeded effects of Faith that isn’t afraid to question it. There is much to take away from a dense work like this. As with most of the director’s work his characters will do things that you won’t agree with or understand, but Scorsese as always presents without judgment between the easy and the right things to do. Sometimes the director doesn’t give a sufficient answer, he only asks us to watch in thoughtful and pondering silence.
10/10 (A bleak, stark, and deeply personal project of epic introspective scope that seeks to question the nature of Religion and how people internalize it. Frustrating, complicated and perhaps enlightening, just as any Faith-based movie should be.)