One of the many great qualities of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christis the sympathy given to the characterization of Judas. In his film, Scorsese sees Judas as somebody whose cosmic role in everything was to betray Jesus, this was his ultimate purpose. He did it because Jesus commanded him to, because Jesus knew he could rely on Judas to carry out this apostasy. In The Last Temptation, by committing his act of betrayal towards Jesus, Judas was in some ways his most loyal follower. Scorsese has always had sympathy for the faults of man in the face of impenetrable altruism. This sympathy for the Judas inside us flows throughout Silence, a movie only Scorsese could make.
Scorsese seems to have transcended terms like masterpiece by now, the term just isn’t enough to describe what he does with his films. Retrospective pieces can’t seem to encompass what he has meant for film. Silence is yet another essential work of cinema from a filmmaker who has nothing but those. There’s been much buzz about how it has taken nearly 3 decades for Scorsese to make Silence. It’s worth discussing, as the fervor and required devotion is felt throughout. Scorsese has often called out to God through his characters with no answer in return, most prevalently in his earlier filmography. This cry of faith carries over into Silence, one piece of evidence that this has been a film 30 years in the making. But in watching the film I couldn’t help but feel grateful it didn’t come together before now. In the same way Kurosawa couldn’t have made Ran as a younger man, Scorsese just couldn’t have made Silence until now. Suffering had do be done for Scorsese’s martyrdom.
In Silence, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) travel to 17th century Japan, where Christianity is outlawed and practitioners are actively persecuted and killed, to locate their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced the gospel in public.
There isn’t a lacking turn among the cast. The core duo of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are both perhaps career bests, yet buzz terms like that seem to oversimplify the work they do here. They simply know the value of being in the moment as actors, the emotions of suffering and conflicts of faith understood with a glance or movement. They don’t have to oversell a single scene. There’s a valid, if still only presented to sound superior, argument that harsh physical changes for a role overstate and twist the notions of what “good acting” is, that it’s a cheap way to pretend that the performance is good. Let that argument persist about other films and roles, for it is not the case here. The emaciation, the physical tolls is evident on each of them (and Neeson) and is worth noting. Their act of punishing devotion to their roles is emblematic of the punishing devotion their characters strive to display to God. It’s an extension of the performance.
Talents like Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata and Shin’ya Tsukamoto are incredibly felt in their roles and how they exist on the spectrum of faith in Silence. Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds deliver calm quality in limited screen time. It is Yosuke Kubozuka that deserves the most attention though, in his heartbreaking turn as Kichijiro, a man who denounced Christ earlier in his life, and continually asks for forgiveness that he feel he doesn’t deserve. He is a constant sinner and is completely cognizant of it. He repeatedly betrays the priests and the faith only to come back to beg for forgiveness, then repeat the cycle after confessing. At one point Rodrigues narrates that evil isn’t a term that a wretch like Kichijiro is worthy of. Kichijiro brings up the discussion of whether or not continual forgiveness is a part of Rodrigues’s martyrdom. He is a Judas of sorts to Rodrigues’s Jesus complex. Without spoiling anything, his final act in the film is one of devotion against a past full of transgression, supporting Scorsese’s view of Judas as one whose human betrayal is out of eternal devotion.
The natural photography that Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto employ is some of the greatest in Scorsese’s career, and certainly the best work of Prieto’s. One character mentions how the spirituality and religion of the Japanese is tied to nature. These images literalize that intersection of beliefs and the physical. There’s a sanctity, a reverence, in each image. Scorsese has always been as much a student of cinema as he is a constant innovator, showing decades of lessons learned from the likes of cinema masters Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu in how he presents this film. The opening images, the way the fog inhabits the being of the frame, immediately invokes the spirit of Kurosawa. There is a tranquility in the calm of these images reminiscent of Ozu. Thelma Schoonmaker has always been one of the greatest editors of cinema, Scorsese wouldn’t be who he is without her. Her steady hand here is no less essential to Scorsese. Silence is certainly long, no act of faith should be easy, right? But each frame we get is essential, there’s just no way this film could exist even a minute shorter. “Slow” is the easy word for the film’s pace, “patience” and “necessary” are more fitting.
The voice of God does appear (or is it the voice of Jesus?) but the curious thing is that the voice is never credited. This is of course significant, but even more to ponder is the nature of the voice. It felt familiar, I couldn’t quite place where I had heard it before, who it belonged to. I hope the internet never figures out who provided that voice. The unknowable is essential to deity. The core question of Silence, if you can boil the complexities of faith and suffering down into just one question, is what does it truly mean to be Christlike? Is there a difference between faith and suffering? At what point does martyrdom evolve into an act of vanity? Can an act of apostasy also be an act of devotion? Before an opportunity to renounce his faith, one character tells Rodrigues that he will commit the toughest, greatest act of love in his whole life through apostasy. Silence, the act of it and the film, are similarly tough and complicated acts of love and sacrifice.