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director: Martin Scorsese
– Feb. 25, 2023
first posted to Adversaria Jun. 6, 2022

See also the review of Shusaku Endo's book, here.


Shusaku Endo's book, Silence, I enjoyed very much and which, on its philosophical presentation, I have thought about many times since reading it. I am always reticent to comment on the literary qualities of a book in translation because of how easy it is to destroy those qualities within even an adequate translation. As is said, poetry is that which is lost in translation. (Though, perhaps Pound would say only if you do not know what you are doing.) Which is not to mean I am saying all translations are non-literary. We need only point to Moncrieff's translations of Proust, and, in the Japanese, Seidensticker's translation of Kawabata's The Master of Go, which is a wonderful read. Much of that is because of the structure of The Master of Go, and Silence can be thought of in the same way: the literary qualities are demonstrated simply in that the book pulls off the complex arguments-in-a-story it is trying to present.

I have now been able to watch Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of the book. (It is at the time of this writing on Prime. Also, to note, this is criticism, not a review. I will discuss the events in the film.) I am a fan of Scorsese, and own many of his films on disc; though, I do make a half hearted argument that his films are best the more they are willing to break away from realism. And it might be said that Silence is at its aesthetic best when it permits the setting of the shots to participate in the story – often in what feels unreal ways (however natural the scene). Mist and fog make their appearance, always to striking effect. (It is hard not to say he is taking from Kurosawa, there, but, then it is hard not to say any such use of mist and fog is taking from Kurosawa, he did atmosphere so well.) And the geography is well used. There are striking scenes. Silence can be quite the beautiful movie when it so desires. Even a shot of three, empty chairs in a courtyard. Though, for me it also had its moments where the aesthetic qualities were pushed aside for the storytelling. Perhaps unavoidably.

I have read it that Silence creates a unofficial/official trilogy of Scorsese religious films: the first two being The Last Temptation of Christ, which I very much like and have watched a number of times (and I wholly recommend Kazantzakis's book), and Kundun, which I have seen only once, even though I own it. I am going to have to watch it again. And Silence, the book and the film, are very much religious texts. The story is of two Portuguese priests, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, of the Roman Catholic church smuggling themselves into a Japan that has brutally repressed Christianity to eliminate a foreign contagion in their world (indeed, they have ended all contact with European nations), going to the island in order to verify or deny a rumor that Father Ferreira, who was teacher to the priests and who would be the last living priest in Japan, had apostatized and become a Japanese. Once on shore in Japan and led by a questionable guide, Kichijiro, they find a community of Christians who welcome the priests whole heartedly, despite the danger of merely having them in their midst. Perhaps they welcome them a little too whole heartedly, a little too desperately. That in the book and presented in the movie, though in the latter that question is only asked once, and seemingly passingly.

Which leads to the questions I have of Scorsese's Silence. While it may follow the story of the book fairly closely, in ideation it breaks greatly, either by (perhaps necessary) absence or by wholly changing the story. As I say in my review of the book, Endo's Silence has three themes. First there is the titular idea of the silence of God, particularly that silence in the face of the suffering of the peasants, not only in the repression of Christianity but also in their daily lives. That is important in the film, but I will let it pass by. Second, there is first the idea that Japan is a swamp within which nothing new can take root. This is the primary idea that was taken up at the time of the book's publication, for it argues that Catholicism in Japan is not truly Catholicism, but some corruption thereof or at best a hybrid. That is brought up in the movie; not as strongly as in the book[FN], but it is put to use in the convincing of Father Rodrigues (the main character) to apostatize.

[FN] The discussions between Rodruigues and the inquisitor Inoue and with Ferreira are far more involved in the book. For me, it is to the weakness of the film that that it is not there duplicated: they are presented only in brief extract, which undermines the strength of the arguments as presented in the book. For example, that Japanese Christianity is not Portuguese Christianity takes up (relatively) a lot of space in the book, and perhaps should have taken up as much space in the movie. The theme of the dead butterfly in a spider's web is absent from the film, but of power in the book. Such absences weaken the arguments of the film, perhaps for the worse. But, would the film have worked with long conversations? The difficulties of bringing a philosophical book to film. The Last Temptation of Christ is greatly about people talking to each other, so the philosophy could be brought in more cleanly. Here, would such have broken from the pacing of the first half of the film occurring in rural Japan? Or, since once you enter urban Japan everything changes, could the film not have survived a turn to the discoursive?

Third, there is what might be a central theme of the book: the accusation of the arrogance of Roman Catholicism combined with the questioning of the rituals and paraphernalia of its religion. This, though, cannot be wholly separated from the second point, above, as it must be asked if the Christian Japanese are not believing the same ideas that Portuguese Catholicism believes – one blatant example, their son of god is for them an appropriated sun deity (this in book and film). Then one has to ask, as is asked that one time, why their exceedingly – and that word cannot be understated – exceedingly fervent desire for the physical tokens of the church and the rites performed by the priests. It is as though the trappings of the church are far more important to them than the teachings of Jesus. The one moment where Rodrigues questions this behavior occurs when Rodrugues breaks his rosary so as to pass its beads around to the villagers, who tremble with open palms as though he were handing out food to the starving. Which creates, profoundly, the question: are they followers of Jesus, or are they followers of Roman Catholicism. Which creates the intended question: are the priests themselves followers of Jesus or followers of Catholicism. And we are confronted with the question of Roman Catholic arrogance. One point during the film speaks of a previous and famous Portuguese priest who demanded of his followers the learning of Catholicism and Portuguese but could not be bothered to learn Japanese or the world of Japan. It is a speaking of arrogance. As the Japanese captors of Rodrigues point out, people suffered and died because of the presence of Catholicism in Japan, people are suffering and dying presently because of the coming to Japan of the two priests. The point is brought to a head when villagers are being executed before Father Garupe. All he has to do is apostatize and he will save their lives; yet, he refuses to. To his benefit, Rodrigues, who is made to witness this from a distance, is in his head (much of the film is advanced through voice over) begging Garupe to do just that.

Indeed, when Rodruigues is finally put to the question of apostatizing, it is in the presence of five villagers being put through the torture of the pit. And he is presented with the point that Jesus himself would immediately apostatize if it would end their suffering. Yet, when Rodruigues finally steps on the image of Jesus put before his feet, he collapses into emotional wrack because he is denying not his faith in – perhaps better said his following of – Jesus but that of his world of the Roman Catholic church. The scene should be condemnatory: emotionally he is more overtaken by his refutation of Jesus-as-understood-through-the-Church than he is by his saving of the people from slow and agonizing death. The decision is exceptionally difficult for him, and it is as though he was himself tortured into the act. There was not much compassion in the moment, not really. Only just enough for him to act. (To note, Rodruiques himself is never tortured.)

This is how it is also in the book. Rodruigues has to force himself to apostatize. It is an extreme act of strength for him to step on the image of Christ even though it will save the lives and end the suffering of not only the five people in front of him but however many more who would die before he so acted. Difficult for him because he is renouncing – stepping on – his entire world view. Only, in the book this moment is prefigured constantly: the arrogance of the Roman Catholic priests is presented from the first moment in their use of the word infidels to describe the Japanese – from the first the absence of compassion for others. When Garupo lets people die because of his refusal to apostatize it is a condemnatory scene. Rodrigues is from a distance begging Garupe to save the people. And, yet, when Rodrigues is put to it, he almost cannot do it himself, even feet away from people in groaning suffering. It seems a contradiction in the film, that one moment Rodrigues is readily saying one thing, in another doing the opposite. Unless it is not a contradiction, and speaks the arrogance of the priests in their religion: it is easy enough to demand kindness from someone else; difficult when it is demanded of you, because your belief gets in the way. That is, their belief gets in the way of seeing the suffering of others.

Which leads to the final scene. It is after Rodruiguez has lived out the remainder of his life in Japan, having been given a Japanese name, a wife, and a child (those of an executed man), though living constantly under guard. At his funeral, his wife puts a written Buddhist token into his folded arms before they burn the coffin and body. And when the flames are set, the camera returnes to the body, zooming in to look within his hands, showing there, resting in his open palm, a crudely carved crucifix which Rodruigues has kept hidden these many years. The scene is a break from the book. Also a break is the narrated point that at the death and funeral it was observed that the wife did not shed a tear. Which implies that Rodrigues showed no love for her, that she held no deep love for him. And then there is that crucifix. Now, it is impossible that somehow Rodruigues held it in his grasp even after death. Indeed, in the final shot, his hand is open. It had to be put there. Perhaps by his wife? Though, I think that is reading too much. I think it is supposed to be that he did somehow hold to it even after death and the palm had to be open to get the shot. Which to me is clumsy – simply, that could not have happened. Perhaps the wife did put it there when she slid the papers under his arm. But, then, how would she know it even existed? And would she dare to have it on her person when it would mean her death? Again, it is clumsy. But neither here nor there as regards my point.

The point is that the film ends with it in his hand. Which speaks that he never fully renounced his Catholicism. Which, on a surface level, Christians viewing the film might take as a victory. His religion won out in the end, if but in that in his death there was a private act of rebellion against the repression. In the book there is mostly but the facts of Rodruigues's life as a Japanese. Important is that he never really gets to speak personally to Ferreira, however much he desires it. They both went through the same trial. Rodrigues very much wants to talk about it. (This is not in the film, except glancingly.) It seems in the book that Ferreira wholly accepted the truth of the moment of his apostatizing: the lives of others were more important than the Catholic Church, more important than stepping on the face of Jesus. And word gets to Portugal that Rodruigues apostatized, and he is excised from the graces of the church. And word of that gets back to Rodruigues. And in the book he has a moment of individual conversation where he condemns the Church, asking what did they know in their wealth and comfort of the suffering of the poor. And, in the film, the world of the peasants is presented in stark contrast to the urban world. The former is dark, shabby, broken down, thick in mud, with little food and heavy taxes, and the people are, to be blunt, ugly for it. (So also is it in the book. Indeed, the harsh lives of the peasants is presented in much greater emotional detail in the book.) The urban world, however, is clean, decorated, the people happy and well off, and, to be blunt, beautiful. In fact, the world of the peasants is brought into the stark contrast with the opening scenes of the world of the church. Indeed, the Christian belief of the peasants is called into question in the film in that they speak mostly of paraiso – paradise – the promise of their faith, a world without work, without taxes, without hunger. So it must be asked: are they truly finding love in Jesus, or are they just desperate for relief from their horrible existence? This is the question Rodruigues puts to the church in the book: what does Catholicism truly know about the suffering of the poor?

But even that moment of realization is broken as Rodruigues immediately questions it as cheap rationalization to justify his apostatizing. Even in that moment of obvious revelation he cannot wholly escape his clinging to the religion.

That is not in the movie, though. In the movie there is a wife who sheds no tears. And there is a crucifix in the palm of a dead man. And it is easy to say the it is a positive symbol of Rodrigues's faith, that he never wholly became Japanese, that he never forsook his being a priest, that he never abandoned his religion.

Except, that is also to say, that he never forgave himself for stepping on the image of Christ. Which implies that he never fully understood that saving the others from torture and death was the truly Christlike act. And in that moment the silence breaks and he hears the voice of Jesus. In the book, the priests are not heroes. Indeed, the whole of the Catholic presence in Japan is called into question, an act ultimately with devastating results, the death of hundreds of thousands, and an act that, in the swamp of Japan, did not at all result in what the Catholics believed to be happening. Catholicism in Japan was not Catholicism in Portugal. In the book, to the end Rodruigues is presented as an anti-hero: not in the sense of an otherwise negative person doing good things, but in the sense of being the hero of the novel yet being a negative person, an unredeeming person. Reading the final scene in the movie superficially, you are presented with a religious hero, someone who withstood, however they might, religious repression. But reading in context, Rodruigues is not a hero. His very entrance into Japan brings death and destruction upon the villagers – and he recognizes that at one point in the film. But recognizes it not enough to wholly accept that he has the ability to end it. That he has the ability to be Christ-like. His religion stands in the way. And that crude crucifix in his hand speaks that he never wholly understood the Christ-likeness of his stepping on the image. The Catholic church would always – had to always – come first. Arrogance.

My issue with the film then is that that final moment is too ambiguous. It is too easy to read that final scene as a final statement of faith. It should not be. In the book, the arrogance of the priests in their religion is made clear. In the film, I do not think it is made clear enough. Unless that is Scorcese's point: it is easy to cling to and justify and raise up the religion. But if one but look, closely, if you are capable, the religion proves itself false. And if one but look, Rodruigues was not the religious hero after all. In the end, Rodruigues chose the church over love. That the wife shed no tears is a condemnation.

For me, that is the more "Scorsese" of the readings. The Last Temptation of Christ is greatly about the relationship between Jesus and Judas. They are the closest of friends, more than any other of the disciples. And Jesus makes it clear to Judas that one day he is going to have to betray him, betray him so that the work of God may be done. It is a complex thread, in the book and movie a subversive thread – and they are very much subversive texts. Which is why I think the intent of the movie Silence is to carry into film the ideas of the book. Only, I question if it was done clearly enough. Because if you had not read the book, and understood its arguments, would you feel justified in finding that reading in the film?[FN] Or, because of that final shot, would it seem the proper reading was to see the film as a straight film about the lasting of religious faith? Is that final shot one shot too many? Or is Scorsese trying to undermine the natural reading of the book?

[FN] Or, because I read the book, do the presentations in the movie seem weaker than they are because of the strength fo the presentations in the book? I must permit that possibility, even though I do not hold to it.

Personally, I do not think the easy reading is the intended reading. It does not fit with such as The Last Temptation of Christ, and I do not believe that Scorsese would make Silence just to undercut the book. The book would be why he made the film. It is very much of the nature of the Kazantzakis's book; one would think the motivations the same. But I do think that final shot confuses the issue. And I do not think Endo's themes were presented quite strongly enough. But, then, it is a philosophical book. And it is difficult to recreate such in movies without philosophic discourse becoming the primary method of interaction. But he did it in Last Temptation. Could he not do it here?