Apostate [uh-pos-teyt, -tit] noun
1. a person who abandons his religion, or cause.
Back in my convent days, we used to have a thing called Grand Silence. It lasted from right after night prayers to breakfast. It was more than the usual climate of thoughtful recollection that we tried to walk in throughout the day. It was meant to create a place for us to encounter God, to hear His voice and be changed by it.
Against all the odds, I was hoping that Scorsese’s would be a grand “Silence” for the Church and the world today. I was hoping it would be for us a movie like The Mission, something we could huddle around as both believing and secular movie-lovers, to be united by beauty and caught up together in crucial transcendent themes. The realist in me was afraid that, in an age in which the Church is experiencing rising persecution, Martin Scorsese, the eminent filmmaker, would produce a compelling case for abandoning one’s faith when the going gets tough. And indeed, the movie certainly apostatizes in key ways from Shūsaku Endō‘s Catholic theology and spirituality in his 1966 novel, but it is also a shameless apostate of good cinematic storytelling principles. There is no powerful film here either to be inspired or poisoned by. Silence, is no Mission. Few people will ever see it, even fewer will ever sit through it twice, and in the end it will be a lesser notch on Scorsese’s opus as just one more bad movie made from a brilliant book. Too bad, but probably inevitable in light of the challenge of the work.
A few words about the technical odds that overcame Scorsese in his task here. First, Endo’s work is a tough, unconventional narrative dealing with highly complex spiritual themes. Martin Scorsese, as the global audience knows – if not the NY and L.A. critics – is not a master storyteller. His mastery is in the area of creating visual images, but his love of this aspect of cinema generally overwhelms his movies such that his characters are typically swimming in a sea of vivid colors and florid landscapes, but without the audience having any clear sense of where the characters are heading existentially or why. There are definitely some interesting frames in this movie – lots of florid colors and contrasting textures. If only the director had the ability to be as focused in his storytelling as he was with his lens.
But there’s something missing in Scorsese’s trademark visuals here in Silence. The one thing I thought I could count on in Scorsese’s treatment of this book would be powerfully affecting visual images of the sufferings of the martyrs. I was expecting frame after gut-wrenching frame to sear into my soul to make me compassionate with the brutally rendered tortures being meted out to my brother and sister Christians on the screen. But, about an hour into the movie, watching yet another of the endless scenes of Japanese brutality to the Christians, I leaned into my husband and whispered, “What’s wrong with me, I’m not crying.” He whispered back, “That’s because this movie is an ugly slog.”
The truth is, there are more beautiful and yet, ultimately vacuous images in Scorsese’s Aviator (2004) than there are here, where the content is full of significance and yet the frames are generally rendered in a sterile way. In Endo’s book, the primary lyrical images are of the ocean as a metaphor for God, and then, of the face as a signifier of identity. Curiously, Scorsese doesn’t pick up on either of these, neglecting to create any paradoxical lyrical images at all. The images in the movie are silent as to the real meaning of martyrdom, and not, you know, in a good way. It is a devastating lack of imagination in the movie. I contrast it with Mel Gibson’s brilliant cutaways and juxtapositions in The Passion of the Christ. One way to account for the lack of feeling here has to be that because Scorsese believes that dying for the Catholic faith is a waste of a life, his rendering of the martyrdoms in the movie just don’t have any kick. They were horrible without being meaningful. That’s a trick.
Another huge challenge for Scorsese in this movie is that Silence is set in the far East, in 16th Century Sengoku Japan, a world far, far from the director’s comfort zone as the filmmaker of New York City. This is an expensive and complex world to recreate and it’s abundantly clear throughout the movie that they did not have the budget to do this story right. The movie doesn’t use production design to unfold for us enough details of the time period’s culture that would help us understand better what is driving the brutality at the heart of the story. Instead, over and over, Scorsese apostatizes from filmmaking 101 “show don’t tell” and resorts to dialogue scenes to tell us who these people are. Another sign of corner cutting is in that there are only a handful of establishing shots of the period set pieces, and the nearly empty villages and Japanese court just drove it home that this is trying to be epic filmmaking on a razor-thin margin. The movie does not succeed in being epic.
It’s clear that Scorsese was in awe of Endo’s book, just as it is clear that he did not understand it. In something that is guaranteed to kill an adaptation, whole dialogue scenes from the book are transplanted right into the movie, indicating the filmmakers weren’t too sure what to put in or leave out. They were smart enough to know that the book had something great in it, but not smart enough to know what. We can only speculate why Scorsese would be so passionate about a book he didn’t really get, although it may be as simple as that he thought he had on his hands a brilliant novel that validated his own choice to apostatize albeit without a touch of torture to compel him. So, Scorsese’s first apostasy from Endo’s Silence, is in contriving that God stays mysteriously silent in the face of human suffering. That’s not what Endo was about. He’s saying not that God is silent, but that He eventually falls silent in the face of the human will to sin. Big difference. Big. Huge.
In the book, the young Jesuit missionaries arrive in China and are horrified to hear that their beloved and esteemed former teacher has apostatized. In a restrained fit of pique and indignation, they determine to go to Japan to either vindicate him (and themselves as fellow Jesuits) or else to offer themselves in atonement for him, if he has apostatized, and thus redeem their order (and themselves as members of the same). Then begins a saga of their indomitable wills determining to finish their task even as it was clear God was opposing the effort. Trials and tribulations, stalwart opposition from their God-given superiors, bad feelings, sickness, sunken ships, lack of resources, all of these keep arising to stop them from their self-assigned crusade, but even though they don’t really know what they are doing, they plunge ahead. (Drily) It’s not unlike the story of the making of the film itself.
But none of this is in Scorsese’s movie. His Silence would have it that God sent the Jesuits on a mission and then abandoned them, and left all the poor peasants to be tortured. What a nasty rotten God, right?
Another huge key to Endo’s story is that the whole thing is told from the standpoint of unreliable narrators. The POV of the main events belongs to starry-eyed, Fr. Rodrigues, full of pious swagger and Jesuitical self-righteousness. Then, there is a gossipy Dutch shipping clerk looking for salacious news of the priest’s failure, and finally a cold Japanese bureaucrat utterly lacking in any compassion.
Scorsese had to lose all these point of views, opting to use a mish mash of Rodrigues in the first and Third person limited, which ends up subverting Endo’s method, making it seem as if everything we are witnessing and hearing is just how it was and not just how Rodrigues is seeing it. This is most problematic in the pivotal moment in the movie, when we all hear, with the exhausted and nearly out of his mind, Rodrigues, the voice of Jesus telling him to desecrate the cross. Wow. That’s nice of God to bail him out, isn’t it? But, the thing is, it isn’t happening. It can’t be. God never tells us to do wicked things. If we hear God telling us to blaspheme or murder or steal or lie, or use any old evil end to justify a means, what we are hearing is either the devil, or our own will, or, you know, an awkward movie voice over.
In Silence, Scorsese tragically apostatizes from basic old principles of character development. Granted, Endo’s protagonist, Fr. Rodrigues, is tough to love being a naïve, whippersnapper with a Messiah-complex and a chest full of hubris to boot. But Scorsese never bothers to make us love him. I sat there in the theater aghast murmuring, “Is it possible that a filmmaker like Scorsese could forget to make us care about the characters?” Actor Andrew Garfield speaks all his dialogue in a breathy higher register which was probably supposed to make us cleave to the character as holy, but which, in fact, is really just off-putting. Because the movie never makes us associate ourselves to the main characters, we spend the nearly three hours of Silence watching the events of the movie, not sharing in them. It’s really boring.
The longest odds facing Scorsese as the adaptor of Endo’s book go beyond just the technical story challenges, though. He’s just really the wrong guy to handle this material. Endo’s Silence is a devout Catholic musing over the value of suffering for one’s faith, which Scorsese, the secular Hollywood glitterati, has no use for. Even more, Silence is one of those brilliant, sneaky Catholic works that isn’t really saying in its heart what it is saying on its lips, which requires a devout lens to fully apprehend. How could Scorsese, a life-long flailing apostate, possibly be trusted to give a spiritually correct view of apostasy? Endo’s book is a Catholic masterpiece. Scorsese’s movie is neither.
It’s axiomatic that the greatest novels don’t translate to the screen. It’s even more true when we are talking about great spiritual novels. Shūsaku Endō ’s Silence is one of the greatest Catholic novels of the Twentieth Century alongside literary wonders like Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Percy’s The Moviegoer, and nearly everything by Flannery O’Connor. The key to translating a great Catholic novel to the screen is to have a profound sense of what Evelyn Waugh called “That Catholic thing,” in Brideshead.
When you miss “That Catholic thing” in one of these great novels, you don’t just end up making a confusing mess on the screen, you end up making an anti-Catholic thing. That’s what has basically happened here in albeit not in a formidable way.
Contrary to the steadily growing library of movies and books that have been vomited out of the Christian sub-culture for the last fifty years – what my atheist friend calls, “cheesy Christian shit” – great Christian literary classics are never melodramatic waftings around the theme, “Rah, rah, aren’t we the best?!” but rather devastating perp-walks demonstrating, “We’re such a mess. We’d kill ourselves except God loves us.”
Hence, in the wrong hands – and by that I mean hands that loathe the Church – great Christian stories can easily come off showing how Christians are weak, wasted, clueless, vacillating, and really just wrong. So, in the hands of a Church-loather, Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory is a scandalous tale of a weak-willed alcoholic priest. In the hands of a keen-eyed believer, it’s about the mysterious power of the grace of the sacrament of ordination. In the right hands, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, is a story about how the Gospel has rendered one family very different from others, full of intoxicating charm. In the wrong hands, it’s about how the weird Flytes keep ruining their lives by always bringing God into everything. In the wrong hands, everything by Flannery O’Connor is about Southern Christian maniacs and self-righteous hypocrites. In the right hands, her work is one long episodic comedy about how grace refuses to leave us alone to enjoy our sins.
Endo’s Silence is this same kind of book. In the right hands, it is Endo wrestling with suffering, like Jacob all through a dark night with God, ending with the only answer – a conviction of God’s sovereignty and a permanent limp of humility. In Scorsese’s Grand Inquisitorial hands, the story is a furtive slam at the steely-eyed twistedness of a Church that lures innocent souls into servitude and suffering, offering them false eternal fairy tales as recompense.
The evidences of Scorsese’s wrong-handedness are all over the movie. For example, in Endo’s book, the elder apostate Ferreira is a broken man, equivocating about himself and his choices, unable to accept any responsibility for his failures, muddled in his argument against the mission of the Church. Scorsese’s Ferreira is, at least, the voice of calm reason in the movie. When he declares with certitude that the Japanese martyrs were too ignorant to have really died for Christ, his voice reeks with that of a resigned, thoughtful man who is simply sharing a hard truth. It is a pernicious change in nuance, and, if I were Scorsese, I would be less blithe about attacking Jesus’ martyrs like that.
And of course, Scorsese’s last, really despicable shot of Rodrigues body being burned like a holocaust, holding the cross hidden in his hand would certainly have made Endo throw up. Scorsese is saying that it is possible to deny Christ, to spend one’s life in public acts of betrayal, and yet to really still have a loving relationship with God in our private hearts. Sorry, Marty. You have to lose the apostasy or the cross. You can’t have both.
Three are many more changes in nuance that separate Scorsese’s work from Endo’s, but that is an exercise that should only be spent on a formidable attack on the faith. As I have said to my students on many occasions, “If a movie doesn’t work as entertainment, it won’t get a chance to work as anything else.” Fortunately, we won’t need to go to battle against this movie. It is going to die of its own bad storytelling. It’s a pity Scorsese didn’t have the humility to see he was over his head here. As regards why people would die for their faith, he should have stayed silent.