Ban All Blockbusters

Credit: Tami Tedesco/ Credit: Tami Tedesco/

Silence is a new film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō. The story centers around two Jesuit priests in the 17th century sent from Portugal to Japan in order to spread their faith. It was shown by Pittsburgh Filmmakers at the Harris Theater, and is now playing at AMC Loews Waterfront 22.

Recently, the idea of a “happy ending” has become tenuous. From where I stand, and in the news I read and hear, the notion that the moral arc of the universe must bend, eventually, toward the light has become a bit difficult to swallow. I think I’ve believed that concept, without too much consideration, for my whole life. I’d go as far as saying that most people surrounding me through the years have had this subconscious faith as well: that although shadows will inevitably cross our paths, the story can never culminate in anything other than triumph, confident and untouched by doubt.

Many of us are raised to believe in watchful eyes and attentive ears, something bigger than us guiding that moral arc, caring for us. It can be “God,” but call it what you will. We wrap ourselves up in the warm security of a divine purpose, and many of us may never be given a reason to doubt. In Silence, Garfield’s character, Father Sebastião Rodrigues, is one who could easily have felt this unconcerned security in faith until he died, had he never been compelled to leave Portugal. But instead, he and fellow Jesuit Father Francisco Garrpe, played by Driver, in an effort to rescue a priest, played by Neeson, lost in his mission to an anti-Christian nation, set sail for Japan. The year is 1639.

The film is spent in quiet, the first hour made to feel arduous, uncomfortable, long. From the moment the priests set foot in Japan, expectations are raised and shattered, reflecting the experience of these men of extreme faith. In a land entirely strange to them, the discomfort of an ascetic life is only the most superficial beginning to how they will be tested. But even the idea of “testing” becomes questionable. Who is doing the testing? If it is God, then is every event a reflection of his will? If these men are here on a truly holy mission, then how does one explain the horrors they unintentionally inflict upon innocent strangers? And with all these questions pounding relentlessly in their minds, the absence of revelation becomes increasingly intolerable. The unanswered deaths of good people are underscored by nothingness, the camera itself giving the impression of a casual, uncaring observer to this extreme drama.

As Endō describes in the original novel, “Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God ... the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”

To my mind, there were very few films released this past year that matched Silence in its ability to speak truth to the human condition. Scorsese’s obsession with adapting the 1966 novel, a mission he shouldered for decades, picks him out as one of the most interesting spiritual investigators in film today. Silence has been compared to another recent, well-received movie, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, also starring Garfield. What I gather about the comparison applies if you compare Silence to any number of other spiritually-minded movies: Silence is uniquely ambiguous. The movie submits questions and issues which get progressively more complicated and challenging as the story moves forward, only to end in ellipsis.

The thought of an alternate universe where Father Rodrigues stays in Portugal and continues to emulate Christ with impunity, zealously spreading the word he loves so sincerely, is an exceptionally relevant point. Within certain communities, it is entirely possible to believe in the simple, moral righteousness of the universe. What appeals to me so dearly about Silence is its admission that reality is not nearly so simple. Our platitudes and notions that bring us comfort can be helpful, of course, but it’s ridiculous to imagine that the world is so straightforward. How do we allow inarguable tragedy into our belief systems? How does our view of the universe cope when faced with purposelessness?

Silence does not provide the answers. This is not a detriment to the movie, but rather an enormously mature attribute. Although additionally full of hope and happiness, the world is an inevitably difficult place, and we do it a disservice to pretend that the right path will always, ultimately, be taken. We do ourselves a disservice to think that it’s not worth critically thinking about our actions and the grey area of consequences that result. Silence compels us to understand that, although God or meaning could exist, whatever it is will never guide us so assuredly by the hand.