• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Resounding "Silence"

April 2017

In George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play, St. Joan, the eponymous and tragically fated heroine pertinaciously rebukes her detractors. As the story of La Pucelle d’Orleans so remarkably goes, Joan of Arc is endowed with prophetic clairaudience and as such, becomes the resident conversant for the archangel Michael and a few other angelic comrades well-known to Catholic liturgy. When asked by the Archbishop, just how it is she comes to acquire such sapience, Joan responds, “I always know. My voices—”. Such an invidious response prompts Charles VII’s rejoinder, “Oh, your voices, your voices! Why don’t the voices come to me?” Joan assuages her counterparts, at this point, with her reply that the voices do indeed approach them—they simply do not listen.

On the theme of sound and its absence when desired most, Silence, Martin Scorsese’s latest masterful tour de force, places the viewing audience in the position of Charles, the Archbishop, and so many restive ears aching with dogged endurance for a numinous whisper. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Silence chronicles the attempted religious rescue mission by Portuguese missionaries in 17th century Japan. Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver respectively, intrepidly embark upon a dangerous eastward voyage. Their ecclesiastical instructor, Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), is missing in the foreign Asiatic enclaves and assumed apostatized. The two younger fathers are discouraged from mounting this expedition—a message portending difficulties to beset them—but their credulity for Ferreira’s fidelity is not so easily squashed.

Unfortunately for Rodrigues and Garupe, Japan is not so welcoming to religious eclecticism, particularly that of the parochial elk. The young fathers seek and find among the native inhabitants a small yet zealously devout cabal of conversos with whom they might receive succor. Inquiries regarding Father Ferreira’s whereabouts are disappointingly fruitless, but the Japanese’s religiosity is fecund. The young fathers need not act as proselytizers due to the well-established, staunch Catholic clique. They are able rather to take on a ministerial role in helping to cultivate these evangelical Japanese yokels.

As tends to be the view of most theocratic states, discrepant religious persuasions contrary to the powers at be are seldom embraced welcomingly. The imperial police, sniffing the frustratingly recurrent miasma of Christianity, descend swiftly to exhort the converted to denounce this heretical faith. The terseness with which the police challenge a suspicious person’s faith is simple, if not efficacious. The suspected must step on a Christian relic, a measure minimal but devastatingly definitive. In a scene of high tension, the inveterate scapegrace, Kichijiro, trounces the relic and bids his more sanctimonious friends a hasty adieu. His tendency for truancy when questions of faith are at the helm is a recurring theme.

Damned by their abstinence to step on Christ’s image, three martyrs-to-be are crucified and hoisted into position during low tide, only to face a barrage of saltiness when the waves arrive. This scene is reminiscent of Jesus’s own crucifixion (absent the marine quality) which with the accompaniment of two thieves, made for a party of three. The death scene is anticlimactic but concurrently striking. One of those crucified protracts his inevitable demise, remaining alive on the cross for four days (compared to Jesus’s six hours on Good Friday—a testament to the Japanese man’s endurance).

In lieu of the dangers that have befallen the Christians, the fathers reluctantly agree to separate and proceed independently. It is at this point that the story pivots its focus squarely on Rodrigues, although no momentum is lost with this as the entire tale is told through his narration. Thus ends the fraternal agape with which the two so warmly regard one another. Bereft of his partner, Rodrigues solicits the assistance of some of his sympathizers to help him on his quest to find Ferreira. It is at this time Rodrigues is thrust into the inevitable ontological crisis: exasperated by God’s silence, he asks in so many words “Why have you forsaken me?” and complains of the terrible weight of silence. As though Kierkegaard himself were there to assist—though many centuries his junior—Rodrigues snaps out of his crisis of faith, claiming that “in the silence I heard your voice”.

Buttressed with renewed fidelity, in a classic scene a la The Lion King Rodrigues sees his own unkempt reflection morphed into the face of he who he most emulates in a limpid pool of water. His mangy mane might even rival that of Simba’s. This euphoric and hallucinogenic experience is short-lived, however, as Kichijiro skulks on screen and, once again, double crosses Rodrigues for a more profitable commission than that for which Judas could have hoped.

The ensuing plot entails the tribulations Rodrigues endures under the thralldom of the Buddhist inquisition committee. His disciples are abused, while Rodrigues—perhaps protected by his Portuguese provenance—continues his sermons and Eucharistic deliverances. The committee attempts to fracture his conviction that the efforts in Japan are worthwhile by reiterating the idea that Christianity simply will not take root and grow on the island nation. Rodrigues is unyielding in the belief that his faith is indeed viable there. Something of an impasse is reached, until a soldier, katana in hand, neatly decapitates an unassuming Christian. The vividness with which the scene plays out made swallowing difficult for me the next day. Though initially devastated by this macabre scene of brutality, Rodrigues regains his trademark religious aplomb. This is to unravel, however, as he experiences Garupe’s wrenching death by drowning. This ends Driver’s performance, which was altogether scant but incredibly well-acted. He seems to have been the only one to take the accent seriously.

The next significant moment is Father Ferreira’s re-emergence, some two hours into the film. Rodrigues is at long length awarded an audience with his now apostatized mentor. Even though so many had intimated to Rodrigues his teacher’s band wagon leap, it is a moment of utter disbelief when he finally faces the truth. Ferreira at first prevaricates, but eventually affirms that he has in fact apostatized for the preservation of himself and his followers. Neeson, as Father Ferreira, seems not to have been thoroughly informed of his character’s parentage. He commits to custom with his Irish brogue, not even attempting an Iberian accent. This is quickly pardoned and easily overlooked, however, in light of his character’s looming gravitas. Ferreira implores Rodrigues to join him in apostasy and to “pray with your eyes open” and instructs to him that “mountains and rivers can be moved, but man’s nature cannot be moved”.

All the while, the Japanese clerics commence the torturously torpid inverted bloodletting process on some of Ferreira’s Christian devotees—a fool proof method to incite apostasy. Procrustes himself could not have imagined a more gruesome process and a lapidation akin to St. Stephen’s would have been a more humane sentencing. Rodrigues, recognizing his culpability in their imminent deaths, succumbs and jettisons the faith.

A few technical aspects must be commented on. The cinematography is as beautiful as it is intense. The meandering shorelines and densely verdant forestry panoramas look as though they were imagined artistic renderings rather than mises en scene. Juxtaposed with the enormity of these shots are scenes of profound physical closeness and intimacy. The most memorable example of such is the unnervingly proximate shot of Jesus’s face late in the film. This, being an epiphanic moment of climactic revelation for the protagonist, is perfectly captured. Throughout the film, the director nimbly serpentines scenes of macro and microscopic scales in this way.

Noticeably absent from the film is a proper score. The vapidity left from this omission leaves vacant a space beautifully inhabited by other means. The absence provides greater impact and import to the scenery and the strenuous dialogue. It also, in some ways, reiterates just how foreign the clime is. Bereft of a score, one is left attempting to fill the other senses. Fortunately, the visuals provide much to be satisfyingly absorbed. The lack of a score reiterates the immersion into a foreign land, where even the biophony is nearly inaudible. So accustomed are we to the rhapsodic musical pieces associated with godliness (consider, on this point, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) that this is a welcomed omission.

In the end, it is not enough that the occidental walls of the church “have fallen down” if the oriental ones remain so high. Referring to the gospel of Luke, Joan of Arc says, “tell him that it is not God’s will that he should take his hand from the plough”. Perhaps, through the weight of the burdensome silence was God’s message that a new hand should not meddle with the tight grip on the power at be. And although both Joan and Rodrigues meet ends differing in degree, God’s messages were not lost on either.

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