Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Deafening Sound of Silence and The Virtues of Failure: Why Everybody Lives by a Code and Nobody is Ever Completely Right

There are very few films I can recall that sent a chill down my spine after watching them, but as I sat watching the credits roll for Silence, I felt that familiar vibration creeping across my vertebrae. It wasn't that the story of two 17th Century, Portuguese, Jesuit priests travelling to Japan to search for their missing mentor who was rumoured to have rejected his faith while at the same time engage in missionary work themselves to promote Catholicism was some kind of a white-knuckle, thrill-a-minute adventure.

Quite the opposite, Silence was a (for the most part) quiet meditation on faith and spirituality by Martin Scorsese, who has wrestled with his own faith throughout his life. This has been a common theme in many of his films, probably most notably The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, which comprise the other two thirds of the unofficial Scorsese spirituality trilogy. Also notably, and kind of appropriately, the public response to Silence seemed a lot more subdued compared with Last Temptation or Kundun, both of which stirred up considerable controversy at the times of their release, with Scorsese even being banned from China for a time after the release of Kundun. I don't know if that's saying too much these days; if you sneeze in the wrong direction you're liable to attract the ire of the Chinese government (or, you know, if you're gay or a ghost, or perhaps worst of all, a gay ghost).

For some reason, despite his vast and varied catalogue of films, it seems that from recent online discussions, people seem to have superficially associated Scorsese mostly with subject matter relating to organized crime. Although several of his films do deal specifically with the Mafia or some type of organized crime, these specific settings and characters are a pastiche of what Scorsese witnessed growing up in New York, and a lens through which he explores themes and concepts that run a little deeper than whether snitches do, in fact, get stitches.

As different as Silence seems at first glance from Scorsese's gangster films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, or The Irishman, in terms of character, setting, and plot, all of these films are actually united by several common thematic threads that really tie Martin Scorsese's work together, man. Like many of of his films, Silence centres on a protagonist living by a very specific code who is forced into a situation that challenges that code, who then is compelled to choose whether to adapt or even violate that code in a way that maps onto the reality of what they're facing for their own literal or metaphorical survival. In some way or another, all of Scorsese's films are about a crisis of faith, whether it's literal faith in god, faith in one's family (biological or chosen), or faith in one's moral code or worldview. As Martin Scorsese himself put it, "My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else." In other words, grappling with one's faith and one's relationship with god, whether literally or metaphorically, is fundamental to Scorsese's entire pantheon of films.

At first blush, the protagonist of Silence, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a 17th Century Jesuit priest, and the protagonist of Goodfellas, Henry Hill (Ray Liota), a 20th Century mobster don't seem to have that much in common. But upon deeper inspection, Rodrigues and Hill eventually end up facing the same core struggle, albeit in very different circumstances and for very different reasons. I'm not sure if Rodrigues always wanted to be a Jesuit for as far back as her could remember, but he is as dedicated to Catholicism as Hill is to being a gangster. There are several common denominators between religion and organized crime that Scorsese has distilled down to several core themes that are particularly prevalent in Silence: adherence to a strict moral code, the desire to be part of a family (or more fundamentally, to achieve a sense of purpose and belonging), and the search for a father figure, who usually turns out to be a failure in that particular role. (For the sake of civility, I will refrain from drawing any more parallels between organized religion and organized crime, no matter how easy it is or how great the temptation may be.)

As a Scorsese protagonist, Rodrigues is a triple threat, checking off all of these boxes. He's depicted as one of the truly faithful. He is devoutly committed to the tenets of his faith and the mission of his church. More than that, he seems so committed to his faith, that he literally cannot believe it when he receives word that his mentor, Father Cristovão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), while on mission in Japan, rejected his own faith in the face of torture. For Rodrigues, it's inconceivable that Ferreira ever would have apostatized; his faith both in his belief system and the fellow members of his brotherhood is as firm and and as absolute as his faith in god and the slimming power of the colour black.

Seriously? Not one sushi shop in the entire village?
Worst. Vacation. Ever.
When Rodrigues first arrives in Japan with his hetero faith mate Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) in search of Ferreira to disprove the rumours surrounding his apostasy, they are immediately side-tracked ministering to a small village of Christian converts. These two priests are all too eager to administer the sacraments of their faith, even in the face of a hardcore crackdown on all Christian teachings by the Japanese government, up to and including torture and death. There's an underlying historical thread here of the effects of Western colonialism, but as with so much Scorsese's work, he is able to build that underlying tension, posing a lot of uncomfortable questions without giving the audience an easy answer, but rather providing an opportunity to grapple with these issues on an individual level. The story of Silence isn't a story of empires, even though that clash of nations also can't be ignored within the context of the more intimate inner journey of Rodrigues.

Instead of taking a macro view of the geopolitical landscape of the time, the story progresses from the more personal perspective of Rodrigues, to much greater effect. This approach is necessary to build the empathy needed for the audience to be able to follow along with Rodrigues on his odyssey as much as it was in Goodfellas for the audience to follow along with Henry Hill on his, and for much the same reason; both of these men are adherents to moral codes that most audiences can't normally identify with.

Father Rodrigues is a man bound by a code, and when he first arrives in Japan, he feels that his worldview is completely justified. He travels to Japan to prove that his code is not only right, but immutable. He rationalizes his actions and his potential fate through the tenets of his faith, including martyrdom, a central concept in Catholicism. There's almost a strange sort of devout eagerness in his conceptualization of dying for his beliefs. As he defiantly declares to local authorities at one point, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church."

Eventually, Rodrigues and Garupe are found out, captured, and imprisoned by the Japanese authorities, led by Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). It's at this point that Rodrigues' faith is truly put to the test, as the Inquisitor insists that he publicly apostatize in an effort to quell the spread of Christianity, which the Japanese view (quite rightly) as a threat to their own culture and autonomy. But instead of torturing Rodrigues directly, as he almost seems to welcome, they test him in a different way. They force him to watch the torture and grizzly execution of Japanese Catholic converts, telling him that they will stop the torture once Rodrigues publicly renounces his faith by stepping on a plaque (or fumi-e) depicting the image of Jesus, symbolically defiling the figure at the core of his belief system.

Perhaps even more disturbing to Rodrigues, is that when he eventually does find Ferreira, he discovers that all of the rumours about him turn out to be true. Not only has Ferreira apostatized, he has wholly embraced his new Japanese identity, including a new name and a wife and family he inherited from a dead man. Worse still, during his extended stay in Japan, Ferreira acquired a very particular set of theological skills that he uses to try and convince Rodrigues to follow his example and apostatize. Instead of dying as a martyr as Rodrigues no doubt imagined both for Ferreira and himself, the elder priest has become a living example of the apparent failure of their mission and their religion that the Inquisitor uses as an example to the Japanese people of the utter failure of Catholic doctrine, foreshadowing Rodrigues' own fate.

If you let your theology go now, that'll be the end
of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you
don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will convert you.
There's a note of the cautionary in Rodrigues' eventual meeting of  Ferreira, somewhere on the border of "Be careful what you wish for" and "Seek and ye shall find." To quote Tyler Durden: "Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?" The crisis for Rodrigues in finally coming face to face with Ferreira again isn't just that his surrogate father failed, but what that failure represented in terms of his beliefs. Rodrigues' faith in god, the church, and his fraternity of fellow priests are so intertwined, that a failure in any one of those cornerstones causes the whole structure to shift. Rodrigues is ready to be a martyr, to die for his beliefs, but Ferreira's apostasy calls into question what he's actually willing to die for.

Rodrigues is put in a situation that he never could have imagined. He was all too willing to die for his faith, but he is conflicted about letting others suffer because of his faith. For the first time, he faces a contradiction in his programming. To borrow some terminology from Star Trek, it seems that Rodrigues is facing his own version of the Kobayashi Maru: a no-win situation. If he holds true to his faith - his code - he will be causing the suffering of the very people he came to help; if he violates his code, then everything he fought for was meaningless. His moral code is suddenly put in direct conflict with the reality with which he is faced. Through the lens of his personal code, Rodrigues had viewed the world in black and white, but he hadn't counted on the true harshness of reality that deals only in shades of grey (and definitely a lot more than fifty).

Rodrigues was utterly convinced that in the total rightness of of beliefs. As he tells the Inquisitor in one of their theological debates: "But we believe we have brought you the truth. And the truth is universal. It's common to all countries at all times; that's why we call it the truth. If a doctrine weren't as true here in Japan as it is in Portugal, then we couldn't call it the truth." The core of his moral code is the fact that his belief system is the absolute truth, the literal word of god, and that somehow if he follows it through to the very end, he could overcome any obstacle.

In a surprising turn, Scorsese actually allows him to do just that. Instead of directly arguing against the type of dogmatic faith that Rodrigues embraces and represents, he allows Rodrigues to follow his faith through to its ultimate, logical conclusion. In so doing, he essentially allows this type of inflexible dogmatism to disprove itself with a sort of theological judo. In the end, when Rodrigues finally does apostatize to prevent the suffering of the Christian coverts, the intent of the film seems clearly to argue against the type of dogmatic adherence to a rigid belief system or a code - in this case, Catholicism - that Rodrigues practiced and not in his faith itself.

As it's pointed out several times, despite assertions of humility, it seems that Rodrigues' initial moral stance is based a lot more on vanity, unintentional as it may be. After their first meeting, the Inquisitor tells Rodrigues that "The price for your glory is their suffering," referring to the Christian townsfolk he had taken into custody alongside Rodrigues. Later, as Ferreira tries to convince him to apostatize, he calls out the vanity of Rodrigues' code: "You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as His. Those five in the pit are suffering too, just like Jesus, but they don't have your pride. They would never compare themselves to Jesus." I think this is one of the key indictments of organized religion in Silence: not just the unyielding strictness of the dogma, but the often contradictory tenets of that dogma that don't even map on to each other let alone reality. Once Rodrigues decides to apostatize and trample on the image of Jesus, he finally makes a decision on his own, outside of what he was commanded to do by the priesthood. At that moment, he takes his first step towards developing his own relationship with god, and in a broader sense, developing his own code.

The point is driven home in the final scene that depicts Rodrigues' funeral after a long life in Japan. Even though he was made to apostatize on a regular basis and work with Ferreira to help identify any hidden Christian iconography that traders and other visitors might smuggle into the country, the camera slowly pans in through the flames in which his body is being cremated to reveal that he is holding a tiny cross. He didn't lose his faith in the end; he instead adapted his faith to fit the reality of his situation, sacrificing how others might perceive him to maintain an internal sense of moral continuity. In Rodrigues' particular case, he found a path away from his dogmatic faith to a more personal relationship with god.

Though the meaning of Silence is slightly different than Goodfellas, Rodrigues' resolution to his conundrum of adapting his code and sacrificing his spiritual family is very similar to Henry Hill's ultimate decision to inform on and testify against his fellow mobsters to save himself and his wife and children, sacrificing his relationship with his gangster family. Though we're not shown the true extent of the fallout for Hill, his decision to violate his code to "never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut" is existentially the same problem that Rodrigues faced, and with roughly the same outward consequences; they are both expelled and ostracized by their former adopted families, the mob and the church, respectively. Their decision to change and live instead of conform and die (both literally and metaphorically) resulted in a fundamental shift in the trajectories of their lives, not just externally, but internally.

While Silence was clearly an expression of Martin Scorsese's ongoing struggle with his own faith, I came at the movie a little bit differently as an atheist (or perhaps, more accurately, a secular humanist). I don't think that difference in worldviews hindered the impact or the accessibility of the film at all from my perspective, especially since the story was told from the very personal point of view of Rodrigues. Even though I couldn't identify with the specifics of Rodrigues' spiritual journey as the resolution to his particular moral dilemma - i.e., whether to apostatize from his faith and give up his pride in order to prevent the suffering of innocent people - is pretty simple for me, I can identify with the underlying concept of constantly struggling to adapt one's own moral code and worldview to the specific situations in which one finds oneself. In a universe of infinite possibilities, it's inevitable that at one point or another each of us will discover the inadequacies of our own personal code that will need to be redressed, or else continue to suffer (or cause suffering) in some way. 

I think there's also another key idea here for people of faith (whatever that faith may be). Although Silence has a strong message against dogmatic faith, it provides a path forward for a more positive, personal spirituality for those who feel the need for that element in their lives. There seems to be a very strong concept of a more moderate faith, one that doesn't require institutions or its adherents to follow some rigid doctrine or dogma, only a strong personal relationship with whatever deity or deities one happens to believe in.

Key to this is the ambiguity at play in the climax of the film when Rodrigues finally decides to step on the image of Christ and apostatize to save the lives of the other Christians. In that moment of silence before he decides, he hears the voice of god telling him that it's OK to go ahead and trample... only that voice is the voice of Ciaran Hinds, who plays Father Alessandro Valignano, the senior priest who sends Rodrigues and Garupe on their mission to find Ferreira. This is an incredibly subtle touch, and totally in line with Scorsese's history of inviting the audience not just to search for their own answers, but to ask their own questions. When Rodrigues finally does hear the "voice of god," it's a very personal, internalized experience. Whether or not one sees this as a literal message from the Christian god or as Rodrigues rationalizing a difficult moral decision through the lens of his own personal experiences will do doubt vary from viewer to viewer. The incredible thing about Silence is that I think whether one leans one way or the other, there's still an incredibly important message that can be discerned.

Don't worry; a couple more dancing lessons, and you'll
be ready for prom.
Essentially, the big questions that Silence prompts you to ask yourself are what hills are you willing to die on (literally and metaphorically), and how are you willing to adapt to hold on to what is truly important about what you believe? In each of our lives we're presented with certain situations that  force us to distill our beliefs down to their very essence to see what's really important. And as Silence portrays, sometimes there is no right choice. Rodrigues is faced with a no-win situation, and he, of course, doesn't win. It kind of goes beyond the old cliche of learning the most from our mistakes to another level beyond simply winning or losing.

There's a contradiction at play in Silence between the profane and the transcendent that underlies much of Scorsese's work (and which I touched on in my analysis of The Wolf of Wall Street). Within the framework of Catholicism (and Christianity as a whole) there's specifically a tension between the biological and the divine, represented most prominently in the figure of Jesus, who is depicted as both a man and a god. This is a very specific expression of a far more fundamental anxiety about the human condition. There is a duality to human existence. On the one hand, we are animals, biological organisms following our evolutionary programming and dealing with all of the messy stuff that biological organisms do, like eating, shitting, reproducing, and dying. On the other hand, we are also sapient beings, not only self-aware, but self-reflexive, able to contemplate the meaning of our circumstances. Human beings are, at our core, this strange intersection of the profane and the transcendent.

In short, we're great thinkers, and also great shitters.

It's important to try and strike a balance between those dual natures. Our intellect drives us to continually extent both our reach and our grasp, and our biological constraints help to keep us humble and give meaning to each new breakthrough achieved and frontier conquered. Balanced somewhere on that edge, each of us works out our own code that we live by. There's a large pool of common tenets we draw on (e.g., no stealing, no murder, no hanging of toilet paper in incorrect, underhand manner, etc.), but each of us, based on our own life experiences, may have slightly different variations, or maybe wildly different variations.

As Silence shows us, any time there's a some kind of seismic shift - major or minor - in our own lives, and we are forced to make a moral decision that we may not have anticipated, there's a cost to be paid. Sometimes, we have to take comfort in the fact that we found a way forward and are better people because of it, even though we may face external consequences, sacrificing relationships or social standing to do what we believe is right given the specific parameters of a situation. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we'd like, it's a matter of personal, internal growth that largely goes unrecognized and unrewarded by any external agents like loved ones or societies.

And the real kicker is, that this a never-ending process. Constantly applying our personal code to the situations we find ourselves in every day, noting the consequences, and adjusting accordingly (or not). The most difficult parts of this journey that we're all on are the days when there doesn't seem to be a right answer, but an answer is demanded of us nonetheless.

Maybe the ultimate metric isn't whether you gave the "right" answer, or even if there was a right answer to give; some days, a passing grade requires that we make a call, and that we're prepared to accept the consequences, and keep moving forward and evolving.

The only thing we can do is to keep studying. And hope that we're ready for the finals.

The Verdict

Silence was an incredible film, and should be considered required viewing (which I guess I would say about all of Scorsese's films, so take it for what it's worth). Silence is a 9.5/10 = Five Heads Hung Upside Down in a Dank Pit For As Long As It Takes


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