On October 22nd 1988 a fundamentalist Catholic group linked with the far-right National Front firebombed the Saint Michel theater in Paris, a theater that was showing what had become a highly controversial film called The Last Temptation of Christ. The film had been condemned sight unseen by everyone from The Vatican to Jerry Falwell to Pat Boone. People were picketing outside the home of the president of Universal Pictures, it was banned in numerous countries, and everyone involved received numerous death threats. A film this controversial would be the most famous thing that most Hollywood directors would ever be involved with, but for Martin Scorsese it almost feels like a footnote in an extraordinary career. That’s partly because, once the controversy died down, people were left with a rather complicated movie that isn’t easily digested. It’s certainly isn’t my favorite Scorsese film but I do see it as a pretty important movie in understanding Scorsese’s career. The weight of a traditional catholic upbringing has long been a central theme within his work and it’s something that he’s put a lot of thought into… so much thought that when he dives into it he often presents audiences with works that are a little over their heads. That’s probably what happened with Last Temptation even among audiences who were open minded, and perhaps something similar befell his under-rated 1997 film Kundun. Despite this, he has boldly dived back into those waters once again with another long awaited passion project: his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.
The film begins in Macau in 1639 where a pair of Jesuit friars named Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) have arrived from Portugal on a mission from the Vatican to assess the location of a priest named Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira had been on a mission to Japan in order spread Christianity there when the local government decided to crack down on foreigners meddling in their country. They banned Christianity within their borders and isolated the country from foreigners. The last word that escaped from the country suggested that Ferreira had cracked under pressure from the inquisitor (Inoue Masashige) and renounced his faith, rumors that Rodrigues and Garupe find difficult to believe given Ferreira’s previous fervor. The two insist on completing their mission despite the grave danger of sneaking into Japan and find a Japanese man living in China named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) who they opt to hire as a guide despite his clear alcoholism and questionable motives. Seeing how determined the two monks are to complete this mission, the head of the local church (Ciarán Hinds) agrees to let them go but warns them that there will be no further missions into Japan and that they are on their own while there.
It would be an understatement to say that this movie is dealing with some pretty heavy themes. The film’s Japanese setting will almost certainly draw comparisons to the works of Kurosawa, but its contemplative religious musings are in many ways closer in nature to the works of Carl Th. Dreyer and early Ingmar Bergman. It’s a movie that is very interested in exploring the power of faith and the internal struggles of its main character as he sees people suffer and die for their faith and contemplate whether a god that seemingly does nothing to answer his prayers is really worth dying for. Central to this struggle is the fact that this character is catholic rather than merely Christian and in a perhaps incidental fashion the movie makes a pretty good argument for the value of the protestant reformation. It quickly becomes apparent exactly how problematic Catholicism is when it’s removed from the institutional infrastructure that provides priests to forgive sins and deliver biblical interpretations and whatnot, and the more you think about it the more it feels like these “requirements” are only in place to give power to the central authority.
Roger Ebert once related a story of Scorsese telling him during the 70s or 80s that he “thought he would go to hell for violating the church’s rules on marriage and divorce” before eventually rejecting the dogmas of the Catholic Church and becoming an agnostic. Given that this is at its heart a movie about the Rodrigues character’s inner turmoil about his faith and his increasing skepticism about the rules that he’s been tying his faith to, I imagine that this is a story that is deeply personal to Scorsese. It is not, however, a story that is deeply personal to me. As someone who dismissed my catholic upbringing at age 12 with no real struggle it is really hard for me to connect with this kind of person as he writhes in agony over the fact that god isn’t saving his flock from their enemies and the movie doesn’t do a whole lot to make me empathize with him either. That having been said I’m not sure how many practicing Christians are going to be able to connect with this either as, and I don’t want this to sound too condescending, but I feel like the people who are happily faithful tend not to think too deeply about the religions they practice and the finer points of faith. In many ways this is a movie that will be too contemplative and questioning for religious audiences that lack theology degrees and yet too focused on matters of faith to really connect with people who just sleep in on Sundays.
In many ways I do kind of feel ill-equipped to fully grasp this movie, at least on a first viewing, and I kind of have a hunch that the same goes for a lot of the critical community circa 2016 given how the consensus surrounding the movie seems to be of the “respectful but now overly enthusiastic” variety. I suspect that people would be a bit more eager to dive in had the movie spent more time discussing the political situation that led Japan to persecute its Christian population and gave a bit more time to the Japanese Inquisitor to explain his actions. I was certainly waiting to hear him at least lay out the argument that these missionaries very well could be used for the purposes of setting up the nation for colonization in much the way they were used against the indigenous people in the Americas and perhaps point out that this behavior is hardly unique to Japan (there’s a reason that the word “inquisition” is more closely associated with Catholic Spain than Buddhist Japan). That’s not to say I would have necessarily agreed with that line of reasoning given that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are core tenants of liberty, but the debate would have certainly interested me. However, I don’t think that debate is what interests Scorsese about this story and that’s certainly his prerogative.
At the end of the day you have to analyze the movie you’re given and not the movie you maybe wish you were given. The movie I was given is one that I desperately wanted to like more than I actually did. I really want there to be a place for serious weighty movies like this to thrive, especially in this larger budget level, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to find much of an audience, at least not during its initial run. You’ve got to feel sorry for Scorsese, he made the mistake of releasing a very adult movie during very childish times. And yet, I have to admit the movie didn’t really sing for me either despite the fact that it’s clearly very smart and quite well made. It’s definitely a movie that I plan to see again, repeatedly, and I also want to look up a lot of what’s been written about it by people who know more about its historical and religious context of what’s going on here. For not though all I can say is that it’s a quality movie that did not quite deliver that excited feeling I normally get from new Scorsese.