For Bright Wall / Dark Room’s Issue 70, “Going Long,” I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s 2016 masterpiece of religious cinema, Silence. The long-form essay was also chosen to be published at RogerEbert.com. Here’s an excerpt:
In the beginning, there is only darkness. Crickets chirp and cicadas buzz. There is some small comfort in the auditory, a living hum in the blackness and blindness. Through the void, the sounds of nature build and crescendo, peaking to an almost unbearable cacophony until…
Everything is in a fog. Steam and smoke swirl in the blue-grey as our eyes adjust and hints of a human silhouette come into view. A powerful warrior stands before us; our eyes adjust further, and we realize he is adjacent to a type of wooden altar, upon which lie two ambiguous spheres. As we get our visual bearings, we recognize in horror what we are seeing: severed human heads.
The clouds of steam continue to billow through a wide shot of the craggy cliffs, obscuring our view of the various human figures dotting the foreign landscape of patchy grass and bubbling pools. A line of guards marches slowly into view; there follows a patient dissolve, nearly imperceptible in the mist. Then, a man’s back is before us, a prisoner priest helplessly witnessing a cadre of Japanese warriors torture five Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. They pour boiling water from the steaming hot springs onto the Christians’ exposed skin. We hear a voice, a narrated letter sent from the captured priest to any listening followers of Christ beyond Japan. The hopeful epistolary narration—“We only grow stronger in His love”—is a stark contrast to the image of the quivering Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in the mud, on his knees out of surrender and despair.
So begins Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same title and Scorsese’s long-awaited (and underappreciated) passion project. The third of Scorsese’s unofficial trilogy about crises of faith following The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, Silence is certainly religious cinema, but it is not a “faith-based film,” nor in the transcendental style of his Last Temptation collaborator, Paul Schrader. It is about entering into the cloud of unknowing, the dark night of the soul, listening to the silence of God and waiting eternally for a response. It is a long movie and a movie of longing. It is both prayerful and profane. In the words of philosopher Richard Kearney, Silence is anatheistic—it is about the lingering question of God after you no longer believe in God, a faith beyond faith. The ana- prefix indicates an afterward, a return, not a synthesis of theism and atheism but a radical openness beyond the binary, what Jacques Derrida calls “religion without religion.” In other words, Silence is religious cinema for our secular age.
In our post-postmodern era, there is a notable rise of the religious “nones”even as there is also a “religious turn” in Western academia and the public sphere—as a society, we are becoming both more and less religious all at once. The 2016 presidential election is indicative of this divided phenomenon as 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Trump, while seven in 10 religious “nones” voted for Clinton. It was not only a crisis of politics, it was also a crisis of faith, particularly as many non-rightwing evangelicals (now “exvangelicals”) found themselves without a clear religious identity, exiles wandering in a secularized religious landscape.
Merely weeks after the election, Scorsese’s Silence quietly slipped into North American theaters with very little notice. Despite near-universal critical acclaim, audiences just didn’t turn out for it; with its $46 million budget, Silence grossed a meager $7.1 million domestically. Where Last Temptationprovoked angry protests and boycotts from church groups, Silence elicited mostly muted indifference. Religious audiences may have been uneasy about the film’s doctrinal ambiguities and disturbing violence, while non-believing audiences perhaps couldn’t believe in the religious traditions and tribulations (especially why stepping on the fumi-e would be a such big deal to a priest). Silence appeared too pious for non-believers and too sacrilegious for believers.
But this is precisely how Scorsese has been operating for his entire career as a filmmaker. The opening shot of his first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, is a close-up of a statue of the Madonna and Child sitting in a New York apartment kitchen, and Scorsese once confessed, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Even as his cinematic style and personal theology have developed and matured over the decades, Scorsese has always been breaking down the transcendent-immanent divide in his underlying theological queries and quest for redemption, uniting the sacred and profane, the religious and secular. He says it himself in Mean Streets: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Or in the brothels, the casinos, the boxing rings, the prisons—even in 17th-century Japan.