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Are you there God? On Silence

I will start by saying that I have never been a big fan of Martin Scorsese, nor have I sought to steer clear of his work in any way. In terms of directors, I tend to play it by ear. Show me this film of which you speak, and then we will talk about my becoming a fan. Have you heard of the Malick Wars? Things are not looking good in that regard. I believe Terrence Malick should have quit while he was still ahead, after Tree of Life, instead of producing three more films that are shockingly awful and self-involved. Speaking of Malick, the film that Silence most reminded me of was The Thin Red Line, but with less whispering. This is high praise.

Among other things, I get impatient with long films. I feel like a caged tiger, my mind pacing back and forth behind my eyes. Films that are almost three hours, I normally despise for wasting my time, but Silence did not feel onerous. I liked it very much, even though it did touch very close to home. My family is profoundly Catholic. Growing up, priests came to our house for dinner! I went to Catholic school until I left for university, and attended mass every Sunday for nineteen years, too. The running joke in my childhood was that I would grow up to become a priest. No way could I have stood up in front of all those people. These days, I am neither religious nor spiritual, but I do have respect for the idea that we must believe in something or other. ‘Believe that life is worth living,’ says William James, ‘and your belief will help create the fact.’ The reverse is true, as well.

Silence is based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō about two Jesuit missionaries who travel to mid-seventeenth Japan in order to find their mentor who has gone missing after having abandoned the faith. As you might expect, the issue of conversion among Japanese peasants is a controversial one, and by the time Rodrigues and Garupe arrive to seek news of Father Ferreira, the persecution of missionaries and their adherents has intensified greatly. The film includes torturous stretches, yes, but it also furnishes many opportunities for interfaith dialogue, as the inquisitor and his court express their curiosity at what drives the missionaries to do as they do. Philosophical exchanges between the Interpreter, who happens to be fluent in Portuguese and versed in Catholic theology, and the captured Jesuit Rodrigues, are gloriously good:

‘You believe our buddhas are only men, just human beings.’

‘Even a buddha dies, like all men.’

‘You are ignorant! Padre, only a Christian would see buddhas simply as men. Our buddha is a being which all men can become. Something greater than himself, if he can overcome all his illusions. Buy you cling to your illusions, and call them faith.’

There is some question as to whether the title, Silence, refers to a sense of internal stillness provided by faith, or to the lack of response from God in the face of great suffering. At some points the raucous sounds that teem from the natural world appear to be a sign of the land’s vitality, while at other moments the arrival of quietude seem to signal a retreat inward. Scorsese’s film strikes me as less an apology for global proselytization, and more as a look at the paradoxical quality of the believer–a spirited, but also agonized existence. We what we suffer is ourselves.