My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
—Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34
You have an idea about what a Martin Scorsese film is. Silence may break it. Don’t come here looking for gangsters, rapid editing, quick zooms and dollys, or an abundance of profanity. Sure, Scorsese has made ‘atypical’ films before: The King of Comedy and After Hours are pitch-black comedies, Kundun is a measured biography, Shutter Island a trippy magic trick. Here is something different. Something so transfixing and dense, your ideas about who Scorsese is, about the kinds of stories he tells, dissolve—replaced by a wondrous new realm.
We meet two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, as they travel to Japan, investigating the apostasy of the man who nurtured their religion. Their lives are in danger the second their feet hit the soil: a Japanese inquisitor roams about trying to stamp out the colonial influence in the region. The men find succour in a local village, whose Christians agree to hide them; they must spend their days cooped up in a cramped hut, silent, starving. Only at night may they leave, to minister to the locals and hear their confessions. Unfortunately, in so hostile a climate, betrayal is inevitable.
How much nobility is there in being a martyr? At what point does following Christ, or any model of behaviour, cross from devotion into vanity? Rodrigues sympathises with the Japanese Christians under persecution. He advises them to apostatise outwardly (in the film, this is accomplished by stepping on an icon of Jesus or Mary with one’s foot) to save their lives, but remain steadfast within. However, he himself is unwilling to do the same. He repeatedly refuses to renounce Christ, even when the Japanese he purports to help are punished by his refusal. He begins to see himself as a Christ figure, even if he’s not consciously aware of it. Internalising notions of your own identity can lead to dark, dangerous places.
It’s obvious that there is another 2016 release that correlates with Silence. That would be Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s latest masterpiece. (I review it here.) Both are historical dramas starring Andrew Garfield, where he is a Christian persecuted for his beliefs, in Japan, amidst Japanese who are trying to kill him.
When I look into Hacksaw Ridge, I can see the bottom: the symbols, the themes, the meanings. When I look into Silence, it’s like looking into a bottomless pit: spacious and dark, the merest hint of figures. This is not a knock on either film, both are great. But I feel that I firmly grasp the symbolic nature of Hacksaw—it illustrates one theme quite clearly, and does it so well, I return to it to marvel at its construction.
With Silence, I feel lost. Scorsese has layered so many themes, ideas, symbols, and emotions, it may take me years to get to the bottom of them. (Hell, it took me two decades to come to an understanding of what I think The Shining is about! Some films invite such devotion.) Honestly, I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say here; there is an ineffable quality to Silence, something transcendental, that I only feel from modern movies a few times per decade or so.
In Silence, as in Hacksaw Ridge, Andrew Garfield sloughs off any notion of emotional affect, delivering something pure, primal. It is another of 2016’s astonishing performances; his recent work should easily catapult him to the Hollywood A-list. Orbiting him are equally staggering turns. Adam Driver takes his skills and body to the limit for Scorsese, becoming the physical manifestation of spiritual anguish. Issei Ogata crafts lovely layers to his role as the Inquisitor—a character who could have devolved into caricature. And Yôsuke Kubozuka charms as the film’s perpetual Judas; he manages to be annoying, sympathetic, and heartrending at once.
I began this essay with a quote from Jesus on the cross. Part of Scorsese’s profound wisdom in Silence is that he understands Jesus was not crying out in anguish at his crucifixion, wondering where his Father had gone. He was, instead, reciting the 22nd Psalm, which is entirely about God being present, even when you cannot feel Him. Forgive the lengthy biblical quote, but it is vital:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest…
I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say,
‘let the Lord rescue him.
Let Him deliver him,
since he delights in Him…’
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me…
Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
I will declare Your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise You.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For He has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
He has not hidden His face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
—New International Version
Once you grasp this, you’ve unlocked the first clue to understanding Silence. Those final shots, in which the camera enters a hallowed space, will make sense. This I know, but I also know that I have not unlocked all the mysteries myself yet. Here is a deep treasure chest of secrets, of joys and delights, of wonder, of frisson. Martin Scorsese has given all of us a tremendous gift. Not only does he invite us to revel in these thematic thickets, but he also transports us to another dimension—a spiritual one. Whatever your personal religious leanings, or lack thereof, Silence will almost surely stir something in you. No other 2016 release comes close to being as rapturous, even in the face of such barbarity.
When I look at the other films gathering cumulative critical acclaim this season, like La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea, something just feels safe about them. Each gives a general audience something that it happily wants, be it gentle escapism, representation, or emotional catharsis. There is nothing safe about Silence. It is long, brutal, and punishing. I won’t lie: for most people, the experience will be at times excruciating. There is nothing here that is ‘entertaining’ in the commonly accepted use of the term. But its rewards are far, far greater than cheap entertainment. It will require dedication on your part to reap them. No, I can’t imagine there’s much in it that a general audience would actually want.
But it does contain almost everything an audience needs. Silence is the best film of 2016.