The cinema of religious suffering peaked, in my estimation, in 1928, when Carl Theodore Dreyer released the silent film Passion of Joan Arc. Dreyer’s film is a tightly organized passion play about suffering for faith; the film is set in the claustorphobic rooms of a medieval castle, and filmed nearly always in of close-up shots, mostly of the pained face of the actress Falconetti, who plays the teenage Joan of Arc on trial for heresy. Dreyer surrounds Joan with stern religious men who abuse and torture the young woman, eventually setting her on fire when she refuses to recant.
For me, watching Passion of Joan of Arc is a religious experience. It is not a fun movie, or even an important, issue-driven film. Rather, Passion of Joan of Arc is art to be encountered, endured, and with which one must wrestle. Whether or not Passion is a great movie is beside the point. It is transcendent, operating on a plane outside of the realm of good or bad movies.
So it is for me, anyway.
I had hoped that Martin Scorcese’s Silence would provide a similar experience. Silence, adapted from Shusaku Endo’s novel by Scorcese and Jay Cocks–is also a film of religious suffering, and like Dreyer’s film, it has stretches that reach for transcendent encounters and great spiritual depth.
In many ways, Scorcese has made the anti-Passion of Joan of Arc. Scorcese’s film is not claustrophobic but open to the sea, the sky, animals, mountains. The priests in Silence find all of creation but want only to hear from God. In Passion, Joan is confined to the smallest of spaces, but never doubts she has heard from the heavens. The thematic parallel and the perpendicular nature of suffering make the films a powerful pairing.
Set in 17th century Japan, Silence is the story of two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who sail to Japan to find a lost priest. Word has come back to Portugal that this man, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has apostatized–he has given up the faith–and adopted a Japanese life.
The two young priests find this news unbelievable, and set out to find what really happened to Father Ferreira. This plot is incidental to Silence, however. What Scorcese is interested in are the spiritual and religious questions that accompany his film. The priests are bringing Catholicism to Japan, and Japan is trying to keep Catholicism out. Christian–both Japanese converts and the priests–are being tortured for their faith. They are given a choice to step on an icon of Christ and renounce their faith, or suffer.
The killing of Christians converts in Japan leads to a spiritual torment for the priests, and Father Rodrigues (Garfield) finds his religious suffering to be almost unendurable. He asks God: why are you silent in the face of all this suffering? Why do you say nothing when your people are being crucified?
Rodrigues religious torment eventually becomes physical, as he is captured by the Japanese inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), and the two men face off in the film’s second half in discussions about religion, the soul, and apostasy. Rather than kill Rodrigues for his faith, Inoue has learned that the best way to destroy Christianity is to torture and kill the Japanese faithful as the priests look on. They are not dying for Christianity, Rodrigues is told, “they are dying for you.” Apostatize, and their suffering stops.
Silence strives to exist on the plane of Passion of Joan of Arc, and it very well might. That is the kind of judgment that lacks critical value.
But I also find my own issues with Silence to be largely personal, not cinematic. Chief among them: the fact that these Portuguese priests sailed away from a nation that was conducting its own torturous, murderous campaign against non-believers. That while Andrew Garfield was weeping and watching Christians burn to death, the Inquisition was underway in Europe, and Catholic priests in Portugal were burning non-Christians alive for the same sin.
And given the history of burning heretics and apostates alive, I find the film’s conclusion–not the story, which is Endo’s–but the image Scorcese intends to haunt us with, to be not profound but pedestrian and overwrought. Silence from God permeates the film; silence from Father Martin in the final moment is preferred. But truhfully, these are not the matters of Scorcese’s film. Or at least, not on a first viewing.
The matter at hand is suffering, and why God lets it continue.
This is the question of suffering that Dreyer asked in 1928, and that artists of have asked throughout the history of religious art. The capacity of audiences to endure films like Silence and Passion of Joan of Arc (or Bresson’s Balthasar and countless others) likely coincides with one’s endurance for on-screen punishment in the name of religion. Can you watch violence and torture and find the experience not fetishistic but religious? Religious art and violence have always been intertwined, struggling to find a marriage between spiritual revery and pornographic indulgence. Silence straddles the line. It is not Mel Gibson‘s Passion, overpowering us with violence and directing our mind not inward but outward.
But Silence is brutal. In the expressions of religious cinema, it’s not an easy one to endure. But such is the way with the art of suffering. Expressions of doubt and disbelief in the face of violence have long made apt sermons for believers at the Cathedral of the Cinema.
We attend the cinema in community but when the lights go down, we are alone with our gods. At the whim of an all-powerful storytelling priest, and when that artist is an auteur like Scorcese, telling a story like Silence, we are asked not to enjoy ourselves but to explore our souls and come away with spiritual waters stirred.