In an interview with the Catholic Herald, Martin Scorsese describes his response to being ejected from the seminary as a young man. He says: “When one has a vocation, does it have to be clerical? Can’t you act out those tenets of whatever you believe in your own life without wearing a priest’s collar?”
Scorsese’s films are not always great, but they are reliably Catholic in some way, small or large. From the quasi-religious obsession of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to the controversial humanization of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, faith is a stubborn monkey on his back. His latest film, Silence (based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo), is about two 17th-century Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to find their incommunicado mentor (Liam Neeson) who might be dead or lost, or who might have had his soul and spirit crushed by the violently inhospitable officials.
The missionaries are prepared to risk their lives in the name of Christ. They are ready to be hunted, tortured, or killed. But the Japanese authorities recognize this and respond with a threat: If you do not renounce your faith, we will maim and execute Japanese Christians. These priests might die for their faith, but are they willing to murder (even passively)? Is it ever acceptable to hide and stifle your religious conviction?
This is the movie’s central question, explored painfully, with deep fervor—and beautiful, cinematic, surprising imagery—over the course of almost three hours. It’s an interesting premise, but unfortunately the plight of the Japanese “hidden Christians” is given less time than the anguished, tear-stained face of Andrew Garfield, who can be hard to take even in small doses. At moments, it seems like a fantasy of moral turmoil, directed by someone who has imagined over and over his own theoretical reaction to religious persecution. By the end of the ordeal, the question is stale and overwrought, and the end of the final scene feels like the sweet release of death.
Christians (even lapsed ones, or converted atheists) will almost certainly have a different experience. Silence relies on that small, warm feeling you get when you realize the story you’re watching is part of something larger—and that the giant narrative is made up of immeasurably small pieces that include you, and your parents, and maybe even their parents. Against my will, I felt that glow while watching Hamilton. I could not feel it while watching Silence.
I grew up with agnosticism and a small dash of cultural Judaism. Christianity was not something I had to embrace, accept, or rebel against. I don’t have a strained relationship with Christ—I don’t have any relationship at all. And so this movie fell flat, desperately trying to tug at some strings that don’t exist. This was clearly an important movie for Scorsese; it may or may not be an important movie for you.