by Robert Delaney Jr.
Photo Courtesy of Facebook
I have never been part of the Italian mafia. Nor have I been a champion boxer, an insane taxi driver, an undercover cop or a Wall Street tycoon; so most of Martin Scorsese’s films are not too relatable. Scorsese’s brutally raw and violently imagined universes are places I find alien to my own experience. I enjoy the wild rides he leads his audiences into, but I do not take them too seriously. However, Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, hits incredibly close to home. And I believe that this film is the most important and interesting work he has ever created.
Silence follows two Jesuit priests, portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, as they travel to 17th century Japan to find their mentor, played by Liam Neeson. At this time in Japan, the Buddhist government eradicated Christianity. Much like ancient Rome, Christians were tortured and killed by the thousands. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo. After 28 years of development hell, Scorsese has finally gotten his passion project out into the world.
This film hits home for me because I am extremely familiar with Jesuits. I went to a Jesuit high school in Philadelphia, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, so I was steeped in Jesuit culture for the most important and formative years of my life. Jesuits are tough, they are voraciously intelligent and they believe that we should be in service to everyone, no matter how difficult it may be. So, it is not surprising to me that the Jesuits in the film chose to brave persecution; it is part of who they are. Although I have abandoned religion long ago, I still have incredible respect for Jesuit priests.
This film floored me. The performances from Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata and Tadanobu Asano are all incredibly deep and genuine. The script is great; the dialogue between characters never seems forced or out of place, but rather authentic reactions to terrible situations. The way the film is shot is well done. While it may not be as impressive as the performances or the script, it does not hinder or distract from the performances.
The score of the film is scant, but important. From the title of the film, you can understand why the score would be so minimal. The sounds that the audience hears are what the characters in the film hear; not some grandiose orchestral soundtrack, but the sounds of the world these people live in. There is also the theme that God is silence, but I always find that interpretation to be lacking.
Be warned; this film is not for the faint of heart. Scorsese does not hold back from showing what people are willing to do for their faith. There is no shortage of death and destruction in this film, but it is done with a sort of brutal authenticity that makes the violence somehow rawer.Scorsese is doing more with this one film than I believe he has ever done before. His filmography is impressive, but films like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while very well made and beautiful to behold, are just stories. Silence is on another level.
Silence shows the dynamics of governmental religion; how the differences between religious groups often have nothing to do with religion at all, but what class you are born into. Scorsese demonstrates how the hope of Christianity brings incredible religious fervor to the lower classes of 17th century Japan, and how the governmental Buddhist oppressors are more worried about a class revolt than of religious revolution.
The film shows how far humans are willing to go for their faith. They can be drowned, they can be burned alive and they can be tortured for hours on end; all for religion. This can be interpreted in two ways. If you are religious, this devotion is a show of the strength of faith in the face of subversion. If you are not religious, this devotion may read as the naiveté of humanity; that people are willing to suffer so much for simple stories and rituals. These dual interpretations are the sign of an interesting film. When the messages of the film are so universal that the situations within the film can be interpreted based on your own life experiences—that is when a story becomes reality.
There is a difference between a film that is a simple story and a film that tries to tell you something about the world around us. Scorsese wants people to think about religion; to really think about what it means to humanity. Why do people need religion so much? Why are they willing to die for it? Why do we need to convert others to our own religion? And what does all this religious fervor really mean for humanity? Is it worth the the destruction of life? This film is a conduit of self-reflection and I hope that audiences realize that. This film will offend a lot of people on both sides of the issue, but I believe it sparks a dialogue of reflection that is positive for human growth.
Not all of us are Mafioso’s or homicidal taxi drivers or psychotic boxing champions, but we all have come in contact with the pervasive phenomenon that is religion. I believe Scorsese understands that, and I support any work of art that encourages self-reflection.