Enlightened Liam Neeson (as usual! ^ ^) and lack of silence in Scorsese’s 2016 film, Silence.

Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence is, on the surface, a story of persecution. The narrative follows two Jesuit priests who venture to a hostile 17th century Japan in order to find their lost comrade; rumored to have renounced his God for fear of torture and death. Upon their illegal entry by trade ship, the two find that their Christianity has all but been snuffed out by the ruling regime. Their presence gives hope to the hidden believers they happen across, but their fight against an intolerant government seems to be merely in vain. Christians are discovered and forced to chose apostasy or death by agonizing torture.

As the narrative unfolds, however, we come to learn that this is far greater than a simple story of oppression. Instead, it is a war of two strongly opposing ideals—each side holds a value of significant weight that is catastrophically threatened by the other. This central message is perhaps best represented very near the end of the film. After having been told nothing of the reasons behind Japan’s brutality toward citizens who took to the Christian faith, Scorsese introduces the Inquisitor. From this character, we learn that what the priests are spreading is viewed as a powerful threat to Japan as a nation. Yet his explication is veiled and leaves the audience still unable to recognize a thread of valid justification for mass brutality.

It is not until our main character, the willing victim Father Rodrigues, finally meets the man he was looking for, the apostatized Father Ferriera, that Scorsese plunges deep into the meat of the conundrum. Where the Inquisitor fails to truly understand the weight of his own actions because he is unable to, as Rodrigues says, “know God,” Ferreira sees both sides in excruciating detail. One might even go so far as to say that he has become enlightened. His intimate relationship with both sides allows him to see the truth: that although a priest believes the Truth he knows is universal and therefore applies to everyone, what he cannot understand is that the meaning of his teachings is muddied in translation; ultimately becoming unrecognizable as the priest’s dearly held Truth.

Scorsese’s statement here is, indeed, quite controversial. By giving both sides a deeply compelling argument, he is, in a way, justifying the brutal atrocities carried out by Japan’s ruling forces in the 17th century. Hence, at the film’s end, Scorsese leaves us wondering if either side was right and if ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ play any role in this story at all. His obvious denial of the ‘good guy vs bad guy’ narrative certainly ruffles a lot of feathers in today’s modern, human-rights-centric, international culture. Yet what any Western cine-file could tell you, such controversy is nothing new for the well-renowned Hollywood director. “Scorsese’s nearly 50-year career has been mired in controversy. He’s been called a heretic, an incendiary, and just plain disgusting” (Hunt, GQ Magazine). He thrives on making raucous statements that are neither politically correct nor shrouded in silence and thus is often accused of “glorifying bad behavior” (Hunt). For a film-lover like myself, however, this is Scorsese’s one saving grace. His cinematography is typical Hollywood standard, his choice of cast, blasé. Yet the stories he aims to tell on screen are difficult. They are stories that others do not, or perhaps cannot, tell because they are inherently controversial. Scorsese is one of the rare types that really likes to see the bad guy win.

Although the central controversy in Silence is strong, it’s lack of cinematic innovation fails to drive the message home. Scorsese’s approach to mise-en-scène is, at best, formulaic. The landscapes, sounds, and minor characters throughout the film merely act as if inert elements of the narrative’s backdrop, leaving the audience focused solely on what is told rather than shown. Even Scorsese’s attempt to employ literal silence as soundlessness in a scene was tragically lackluster. When Father Rodrigues relinquishes his stubborn faith and stomps on the face of his lord, sound is totally muted. His soundless, slow-motion fall to the ground could have been a moment of incredible profundity, but due to the lack of importance placed of visual and auditory storytelling throughout the film simply made the silence feel contrived. In the end, too, as Rodrigues’ lifeless body burns, the camera zooms to the tiny cross clutched in his hands in a classic Braveheart moral-of-the-story moment that totally discounts everything the film was trying to do. “You can take my life, but you will never take my… Christianity!”—wait, is that what this film is about!? Horribly Hollywood.


works cited

Hunt, Kristin. “The Latest Martin Scorsese Controversy Is Just Like Every Martin Scorsese Controversy.” GQ, GQ, 24 Dec. 2016,

© 2017 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.


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