Marty goes into the mystic again

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese, based on a novel by Shusaku Endo
161 minutes, rated MA15+
4 stars

When a man takes 27 years to think about a film and that man is Martin Scorsese, we can assume that he wants to say something serious about the human condition. In fact, Silence is his most thoughtful film since The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. That is beyond ironic.

For suggesting back then that Christ and Mary Magdalene might have lived on after the Crucifixion and had children, Scorsese was pilloried and all but excommunicated. Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests undergoing unimaginable hardships and torture in 17th century Japan; it had its world premiere at the Vatican in November. That might show how far the church has come in its attitudes under the new pope, or it might show how far Scorsese has come in his spiritual quest. It might show neither.

What Silence does show is that Scorsese has begun to talk to God again. As a young man he thought about becoming a priest, like many young Catholic men. His early films were strung between God and the Devil: Harvey Keitel praying in Mean Streets (1973), De Niro mumbling about being ‘God’s holy man’ in Taxi Driver (1976), the quote from the Gospel of John at the end of Raging Bull (1980). His middle films seemed to defy God, as he revelled in the worst that men do in Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York. In between, a few films seemed to be asking if God is still there – and if He is, why has He forsaken us?

Silence is all about that question of faith. Two young Portuguese Jesuits take off from Macao to find their teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared during the Shogun’s persecution of Japanese Christians around 1643. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) do not believe the reports that he has renounced his faith (apostatised, in the parlance). A drunken wretch, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) guides them to a coastal village, where a small group of Japanese Christians hold out against the persecution. When the Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) arrives, he crucifies three men on the rocks, waiting for the tide to drown them. The two young priests watch in horror as innocent villagers die for them. Kichijiro soon betrays the priests, the first of several betrayals. The horror just gets worse from there.

Silence is sometimes difficult to watch, even though staggeringly beautiful. The torture meted out to priest and believer is cruel and it’s not always easy to see what Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks are trying to say. In fact, it’s easy to misconstrue their point – as some critics have already done, labelling the film anti-Japanese and colonialist. In fact, Silence is adapted from an esteemed 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, who based it on solid research, and it’s at least as much about the arrogance of the Jesuits as the cultural extremism of the Japanese.

And in truth, it’s about much bigger questions. The clue is in the title. If God exists, why does he remain silent as his people are drowned in rising seawater? If God exists, why does he want you, Father Rodrigues, to suffer so much pain, asks Tadanobu Asano as a more sympathetic interrogator than Inoue? Is it not better to apostatise and save your faithful?

Nobody but Martin Scorsese could have made this film; nobody else would have got the money, even if that took forever. No Hollywood studio wanted it and it’s doubtful that millions will line up to see it. Nevertheless, it is one of Scorsese’s most beautiful and moving films – not just in its physical beauty, captured by Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography – but in its spiritual courage and solemnity.

I don’t believe it shows that Scorsese has gone back to Catholicism, or even to a belief in a deity. I do think it shows that he is still haunted by the questions that faith raises about us as a species. A few critics have described the film as boring, 161 minutes of torture and tedium. That seems to me a failure of imagination. It’s not like persecution for religious beliefs has exactly left us, has it?