Scorsese's 'Silence' is solemn, unsuccessful, occasionally moving Oscar-bait

Martin Scorsese's "Silence" explores two frequent obsessions of the gritty, ambitious director: faith and doubt, punctuated by unflinchingly brutal violence. He brings those same interests to "Silence, a slow-burning, thoughtful epic of religious doubt, which at times feels like a fusion of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" with ceremonial torture porn akin to, if not quite as brutal, as Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" or "Apocalypto." And whereas Scorsese's epics, with the exception of "Kundun," tend to be packed with cinematic pyrotechnics and brash music and performances, here he works to inspire the meditative silence of the film's title that's necessary for viewers to appreciate the ambiguity of the climactic scene, when faith is either lost or grown (depending on how you interpret the climactic scene) and to give it verisimilitude.

Portuguese priests Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield and his amazing hair) and Garrpe (Adam Driver and his misplaced accent) are sent to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), but instead unearth the spiritual seeds sown by past missionaries. Their guide Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) introduces them to poor villagers who who practice a version of Christianity in secret and are in need of spiritual guidance. Rodriguez and Garrpe are treated like celebrities by the villagers, and even as saviors themselves. They never meet a tough crowd, never evangelize to anything but a captive, zealous audience whose persecution only reinforces the self-righteousness of their mission to spread the faith. For a filmmaker as cynical as Scorsese, this film feels a bit too generous toward the advance guard of colonialism. That said, Scorsese understands why the villagers' desire to practice Christianity may arise—more from the seriously dire circumstances they find themselves in. Whereas Rodriguez seeks to share his Truth, the villagers long only for the paradise promised to them by accepting said Truth.

Still, "Silence" indulges some much needed critique of the arrogance that prevails among many Christian evangelists today. It may glorify these Christian missionaries who were at least complacent in the deaths of many Japanese people for heresy, but through the protagonist's psychospiritual journey, the film subverts the value of aggressive and defiant acts of faith with the internal and secret faith of humility (again, "silence"). Is this meant to be seen in contrast to those self-pitying zealots in the United States who feel endlessly marginalized and, in response, demand that the government align itself with certain interpretations of Christian values like, for example, that life begins at conception or that the LGBTQ community should be denied rights? Scorsese isn't so blunt, though maybe he's just afraid.

In typical fashion, Scorsese makes his strongest points as a storyteller through presentations of violence, like in the scenes where anti-Christian officials punish the devoted villagers in a series of cruel and unusual ways. In the first of these sequences, we watch the bizarre ritual of the priests' adherents lined up and ordered to step on a carving of Jesus with the disobeyers giving themselves away for crucifixion down by the oceanside and its Hokusai-sized waves.

"Silence" gives a voice to the resistance of Christianity spreading to Japan in the character of Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata), the inquisitor. Rodriguez comes to meet Masashige when he leaves Garrpe behind with the villagers so that he can continue the initial quest to locate his mentor. It is then, when Kichijiro turns him over to Madashige's imprisonment, an act that Kichijiro quickly asks of forgiveness from Rodriguez. While holding Rodriguez in jail, the inquisitor has multiple discussions in which Ogata expresses his character's reasonable concerns that Christianity will threaten Japan's societal structures as an expert persuader. He explains to Rodriquez that Japan already has a religion and that it is wise to have only one love, and that things get messy if you have multiple wives. They don't come to any closer of an understanding for one another when Rodriquez tells him that Christianity teaches monogamy however, and it's a compelling scene though also a hesitant attempt to nod to the issue's "complexity."

By the time the credits roll, the solemn dedication to persecuted Japanese Christians feels cheap, like Scorsese hasn't entirely earned his right to pay them tribute. And yet, "Silence" steers clear of caricatures built entirely from stereotypes and is often engrossing in the way it grills the motivations of these missionaries, asking tough questions that Christians and atheists alike should find compelling. Even if these priests are glorified and we are not served a glimpse of many of the effects of colonialism. Silence seems like Oscar bait with its willingness to confront the big questions, but it's just a little too ambiguous, a little too quiet for a place among Scorsese's greats. "Silence" seems like Oscar bait but it is just too slow-paced, too imposing, and too uneven even for that.

"Silence" directed by Martin Scorsese is now playing.

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