Sunday, January 29, 2017


I've been hesitant to provide my own commentary on Scorsese's recent film as I'm coming from such an atheist background that I can't, for the life of me, comprehend the unwillingness to apostatize unless this refusal is meant to represent a Shakespearean fatal flaw, the sin of pride. This is, after all, the crux of the film, the hinge upon which the plot turns. In which case, I'm trying to be careful in how I approach the theology and politics of the film. On the whole, I disliked Silence.

I am, for the most part, a big enough fan of Scorsese to have gone to the theatre on the power of his name alone. I had seen no trailer nor read any review; that is the appeal of his brand. Still, not every Scorsese film is a masterpiece (*cough* Shutter Island *cough*). It's possible for the master to stumble. 

The film's crucial misstep is not pursuing a pointed enough critique of the Jesuits peddling their version of Christianity, which of course they insist is the only true faith. Andrew Garfield's priest is the film's protagonist, practically never straying away from his point of view. Likewise, Garfield's emotional and religious journey represents the film's central moral dilemma. In this way, Garfield's position as protagonist in a moral dilemma suggests he is the moral centre of the film. Maneuvering Garfield into the moral centre of the film is troubles me the most about the film. (I appreciate this is a contentious assertion; perhaps reading Garfield's Jesuit as the moral centre imbalances my reading. I'm 100% willing to read critiques of the film in which Garfield is not the moral centre. For now, my reading of the film is predicated on this fact.) Firstly, Silence doesn't lean heavily enough on his pride, his desire for followers, his willingness to sacrifice people to "strengthen" the faith for this critique to be successful. There is some, of course; the pessimism of the Jesuit project is represented through the classic Scorsese manner, which is to depict the subject and slowly chip away at the character and his ideology until the audience, bedazzled by cinematic pyrotechnics, is confused by the ambiguity of the presentation (Wolf of Wall Street is probably the ultimate representation of this vacillation he so carefully enacts). Despite this, no matter how many people die because he refuses to apostatize, he maintains his faith; no matter how silent is his God, he maintains his faith. The final shot, of his immolating hands holding a crucifix, frustrated me the most. It undermines almost completely the critique by suggesting his faith is something wondrous to behold: "wow even after all that, he still managed to keep the faith!" That the film positions him as protagonist, keeping the faith in spite of the barbaric repressive Japanese government boils my blood.

The film plays such lip service to the plight of the Japanese Christians, even going so far as to dedicate the film to them (the second most frustrating thing about the film) but still, no matter what, Silence maneuvers Garfield into the position of righteous in his quiet apostasy, his *eyeroll* supreme sacrifice of staying silent in order to save the lives of Japanese Christians. The Japanese in this film appear to fall under two camps: naive fools worshiping idols instead of "real" Christianity or barbarians, bloodthirsty and wholly deaf to the word of God. This is some grotesque optics: the primitivism suggested by this portrayal really whiffs the whole thing for me. Frankly I'm amazed more people haven't really talked about the classic colonialist attitude to the Japanese, especially in the film's odd dismissal of their faith.

That the Japanese interpreter makes the most reasonable points in the film in arguments with Garfield's priest did not bode well for me. Perhaps, as an atheist, my distrust for Christianity's "one true faith" dogma and doctrine of proselytizing/conversion rankled considering Buddhism asks for inner journeys, inner quests, inner peace, not the rapacious almost capitalistic arms of the octopus known as Christianity. Likewise, the film barely depicts Buddhism at all, though I felt the lack very much. That Buddhism is always a viable option for the Japanese (and the Jesuits really) looms over the proceedings, almost trivializing the crises of the Jesuit program, as it always feels simple enough to abandon Jesus for Buddha without much trouble.

Thus, for me, the film reveals an accidental inner conflict: is this a film about faith, strength, God, and pride or about the political ramifications of colonialism? Is this a film interested in questions of theology? If so, it doesn't do enough to show why apostasy/conversion/martyrdom work the way they did in the unfolding of the narrative as perhaps there is too much back and forth with Japanese bureaucrats. Is this a film interested in the politics of this period of Japan? If so, it doesn't do enough to understand those ramifications, especially not by grounding it in such hushed reverential tones of religiosity. It's a film that wants to say plenty about all these subjects but can't find a way to do so without stumbling over itself accidentally. I'm not convinced the contradictions presented in the film are purposeful enough to accomplish what I think the film wants to do.

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