Scorsese’s “Silence,” faith, and the existential question

I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, lately. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommended you take the time to check it out. I’ll wait here.

Are you back? Great. There are a couple of things that I find hugely compelling about the construction of it.

  • It is Scorsese’s lifelong passion project. He’s been looking to make this film for over twenty years, and it shows. A sense of purpose, drive, and beauty surrounds the film. It feels like everything that he’s done has led to this. It is not inconceivable that in the pantheon of strong Scorsese films (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and many others), this may turn out to be one of his finest.
  • It is a passion project not only for Scorsese, but for the leads. Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver reportedly worked on this movie for very little compensation. Garfield and Driver went through dramatic physical transformations for their roles, and even participated in seminary training. (They are also incredible in their roles – the film is well worth watching just for their performances.)
  • This is a film about Catholic beliefs, made by a lapsed Catholic, and sourced from material from a Japanese Catholic author. The fact that we know Scorsese himself is conflicted about his faith adds another sub-text to the interpretation of this film. As a lapsed Catholic myself, it makes embracing this film easier. I know that I am in the good hands of people who have been asking the same questions as I have.
  • This is only Marty’s second overtly “religious” movie. The first one was The Last Temptation of Christ, which I saw over fifteen years ago. The plot of that movie was blasphemous to many Christians back then – and that’s what drew me to it. Last Temptation feels like Scorsese’s “punk rock” phase, whereas Silence is his “comfortable elder statesman” phase. The movies do share some thematic similarities, however. I need to watch Last Temptation again – a great performance by Willem Dafoe, and an incredible exploration of “what if.”

Silence deeply resonated with me because of a central theme – how do you deal with an impossible choice, when your spiritual salvation depends on it? And how much are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good, when it is convenient to justify self-survival? If there is a God, wouldn’t He forgive us for our sins and human frailties? It is one thing to die for one’s beliefs – people around the world do this daily – but what if dying meant that others’ lives are at risk?

The fascinating thing about what the characters go through is that it is impossible to fully comprehend the aftermath of their actions. Are they fully comfortable, and accepting, of the difficult choices that they have had to make? How does their faith evolve over time? There is a Judas character in the film who is ultimately more of a believer than many of the other characters – can he be redeemed? The film asks questions without answering them, and that lends itself to a more powerful result.

Watching Silence felt like something that I needed at this point in my life. Most well-made movies are about connecting to the viewer on an intellectual or spiritual level, which is why I am still thinking about this film several weeks after viewing. I have found myself grappling with questions of faith and belief, and Silence arrived in the midst of this. Recently, I have talked to friends about my Christian faith, read texts on Buddhism, and reflected about the purpose of life. I still need to live my life and move forward in ways that are spiritually and materially meaningful. I choose not to paralyze myself with existential angst, but I have been toeing that line for some time now. Silence certainly taps into that existential questioning vein, when one considers the circumstances behind how the film was made.

One of my toughest challenges is that I have a decent grasp of the how: how to live. I know myself. I know that I am driven by self-improvement and the need to be happy. I keep a positive mindset about the future. I choose to be self-aware of my strengths and weaknesses, without succumbing to arrogance or self-pity. I prescribe to the thought that discipline is freedom. I know how to live life – of course, that conviction can be illusory and fleeting, but I see no other choice but to be committed.

Things get challenging when I reconcile my personal how with the question of why. As humans, are we too caught up in existential questions (“why am I here”) that serve to frustrate and side-track us? How much value is there in understanding the why, if I can already live my life in a relatively decent way? Animals go about their daily lives without needing to know about the laws of physics. What if the only meaning that exists is to be alive, and to take care of people that we care deeply about? If that is the case, then religion seems to be extra overhead. We are not on this earth for very long, anyway.

Something nags at me. I feel blessed in many ways. Have I had a good life without God, or has God been the one carrying me through it all? I can lose sight of how good I’ve had it, based on how society makes us compare ourselves to impossible ideals.

At the same time, I don’t subscribe to the idea of easy answers. We, as humans, have reached where we are today because of our ability to imagine at scale – not only individually, but as a collective group. The money that we hold, and the clothing that we wear, are constructs of our imagination that we believe possess value. The cynical side of me thinks that religion can be an artificial imaginary construct, passed down over millennia because we needed answers to existential questions. Just because something is there, or is believed by millions of people, does not mean it is the truth (or has intrinsic value to me).

Pondering over these issues has been frustrating at worst, revelatory at best. The trick, it seems, is to accept that there will be no answers – which is why I have recently felt the allure of Buddhist thinking. Buddhism is not so much a religion as a way of being; a treatise for another time. I can live in my head forever but I still have a physical life to live, and people to care about. Choosing things to be a certain way includes a wide gamut of emotions. Hence, I want to be passionate about things and to live life in my own unique way.

I also want to enjoy works of art when I see them. Perhaps it is time to watch Silence again.

Peace,

James

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2 Comments

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  1. James,

    I love this review you just wrote. It is very insightful and you picked up some details that I missed, even though I watched the movie twice already.

    I like how you compare the phase during which Scorsese wrote Last Temptation with his ‘punk rock’ phase and ‘Silence’ with his elder statesman phase. The comparison seems quite apt.

    And I think delineating Kichijiro as a Judas- type character is quite apt; I didn’t quite pick that up when watching but that character archetype indeed seems to be whom he is modeled after.

    The movie has lingered with me for weeks afterward as well. I like the way in which Rodrigues’ character talks to himself during the movie; his inner monologues during times of extreme temptation and trial resonate with me as I face temptation daily in my own life (I.e. Do I step into this funny looking massage parlor? Do I curse out this person or bless this person? Etc.)

    Also, I did my own research after watching the movie; of course, it is a fictional account based on some historical events, so we can’t assume all of it is true. For example, Rodrigues’ and Garupe’s characters are fictional, while Ferreira’s character is indeed historical. But a quick Wikipedia search revealed that unlike in the movie, his character recanted of his apostasy right before his death, and ultimately, he was martyred in Japan for not renouncing Christianity. So, the movie did not include this fact, I guess for dramatic purposes.

    Anyways, it is very insightful to say that you know the answer to ‘how’ to live but not ‘why’… and of course Christianity would provide some answers to that, albeit difficult. Just out of curiosity, what answers do you think Buddhism provides to the ‘Why?’

    Like

  2. Hi James,

    Very insightful commentary on this movie. I have not watched “Silence,” but I think I will try to sometime soon. I’m intrigued to see how this film touches on the points that you mention. Additionally, the title of the film begs the question, “Why did Scorsese give this film this name?” So I will look for clues in this regard.

    Zadok

    Like

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