Towards the end of Martin Scorcese’s pious dedication to the apostate Catholic priests of seventeenth century Japan, Liam Neeson’s character, Ferreira, is called upon by the Japanese inquisitors to engage in dialogue with Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), the very last of the Catholic representatives – now captured – to attempt to track down and ‘rescue’ Ferreira from his Japanese subjugators. Only, Father Ferreira has long since renounced his faith and has by now fully integrated himself into traditional Japanese beliefs and culture.
Ferreira uses the fact that nothing is able to take root in Japan – owing to the country’s aqueous environment, and the tendency for plants to simply rot away – as a metaphor for the country’s people being unable to fully grasp and appreciate the ‘truth’ of the Catholic religion. Pointing to the sun, he explains to Rodrigues that no matter how good and holy had been the intentions of the missionaries, those that had been ‘converted’ by their religious teachings had never really understood fully the true meaning of the scriptures. Theirs was a very literal translation. For them, the sun of God, was not one that rose miraculously after three days to absolve their sins, but one that did so every morning, in the very sky above them.
In effect, the missionaries had been wasting their time, and the thousands of Japan’s ‘saved’ souls were not in fact ‘saved’ at all.
Or so he insinuated.
Whether these were the words of a brow-beaten slave of an intolerant Japanese society, fearful of aggravating his masters, or the knowledgable insight of a now more enlightened soul who had been party to both sides of the reasoning, only he would have known. Regardless, his conclusions shine a light on perhaps the true historic origins of rigid religious dogma, and threaten to undermine their staunch, unalterable, fiercely-guarded ideals and values by reducing them to one simple premise; a premise that man perhaps hijacked for his own gain and controlling purposes, somewhere down the line.
Scorcese was allegedly himself set for the priesthood until the film-making life proved too alluring, and it’s clear that Silence, whilst maybe a little self-indulgent, is the work of a man with great respect for the church and its core values, and at two hours and forty minutes long, he is able to explore the subject matter in some depth in this considered and thoughtful piece.
But what of the film itself? The narrative of Silence contains many parallels with the story of Jesus, with Rodrigues (and to a lesser extent, his colleague, Garupe – Adam Driver), tested considerably by the Japanese as to the true strength of their own unwavering faith, whilst the potential treachery of the weak and confused ‘Judas’ character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), is omnipresent throughout.
Of course, whether one is empathetic with the plight of Rodrigues and Garupe depends greatly upon how the somewhat arrogant, invasive exploits of the Catholic church are perceived. Certainly, from Scorcese’s tale, there can be no doubting that Rodrigues and Garupe’s intentions are wholly heart-felt and honourable, but Silence is not a conventional story of good against bad, but asks far deeper questions pertaining to whether it is right to impose another’s will upon others, and at what point it becomes morally wrong to do so, when to do so is to endanger the lives of others.
Silence’s pace is slow but not laboured, leaving ample space in which the viewer has time to reflect upon the many moral conundrums that Scorcese poses throughout the piece. Garfield puts in a weighty, sincere performance, whilst Adam Driver, and his atypical facial anatomy, is appropriately well cast – if rather underused – as his priestly-colleague, Garupe.
Harrowing, yet understated scenes of torture are occasional reminders of the consequences of following forbidden religious practices in a fiercely anti-Catholic land, and these combined with the atmospheric, evocative overcast scenes of wild and misty Japanese coast lines, lend Silence an eery yet visually beautiful quality.
Silence is a well-crafted piece of cinema without doubt, and clearly a piece close to Scorcese’s heart. Thankfully it’s also a film not making any obvious, cheap attempts to scoop accolades or vying for mass attention (excuse the pun), during this year’s Oscars season.
Watching it brought to mind Tim Robbins’ 1995 piece, Dead Man Walking, in which a convicted murderer on death row finds salvation through befriending a nun, whilst awaiting his execution. I recall being suitably moved by his plight and relieved at the peace and faith that he ultimately found through God.
Silence evoked no such emotions in me.
I suspect that a twenty-two year period having elapsed since then in which my own personal ‘truth’ has veered considerably from any such vague religious leanings, may well have played a large part in that, rather than it being any sort of slight on Scorcese’s film, which may be one of subjective content, but is nonetheless impressive and thought-provoking.
Devout though never ‘preachy,’ Silence will, unsurprisingly, split its audience into those that want to and those that are simply unable to fully engage with it, no matter how they try.
“The church wants us to believe that it was just a few bad apples, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s actually a recognisable, psychological phenomenon…”
The Catholic priest scandal, much like the whole Jimmy Savile affair, in an internet-less age, was the stuff of gossip and rumour. Barring a mainstream media outlet both brave and crucially independent enough to run a major story such as this, it was always destined to remain that way. Presumably an assortment of well-connected people within their fields, influential enough to dissuade any such follow-up to these kinds of accusations, would have had them discredited and brushed under the carpet in no time.
Like Mr Savile, the Catholic church, whilst being perceived as a bit bizarre in that ‘marmite’ sense, was also seen as essentially well-intentioned. Both the church and Savile after all did / do a lot of great work for charidee.
Of course, Catholicism is often the subject of much debate. Whether one buys into its core message and instructions, is appalled by its historical global track record, or is bewildered by the concept of living one’s life in a state of servile, fearful reverence, the Catholic church does however offer a great many people a source of much comfort, providing a sense of community and meaning to a large number of folk. For all of the negative aspects of the religion, it does encourage people to be generous of heart, caring and charitable. Though not traits exclusive to those of a religious persuasion by any means, it’s nonetheless important and only fair that this is always acknowledged.
It cannot be ignored however that some very fundamental aspects of the structure and mechanics of Catholicism were key ingredients in the revealed mass abuse of young children the world over, and it’s this revelation that forms the crux of Tom McCarthy’s at times hard-hitting, Spotlight.
The backdrop is Boston, a city with a traditionally large Irish-American population and hence a strong historical representation by the Catholic church. The city’s Boston Globe newspaper has run a one-off ‘comment’ column regarding the abuse of young children at the hands of Catholic priests. Its reception is lukewarm at best and the piece would have been confined to the historical archives but for the coincidental and timely appointment of a new chief editor at The Globe – a man with new ideas and priorities – and it is decided therefore that they should look into this further, entrusting the task to the paper’s special investigative arm, Spotlight.
Understandably, this is met with an air of disapproval by the team considering that over half of The Globe’s readership are statistically practicing Catholics.
Through conversations with abuse ‘survivors’ groups like S.N.A.P and with assorted insiders, the true nature and scale of the problem is quickly pieced together and revealed:
A priest’s vow of celibacy, whilst adhered to by many, we are informed is essentially a smokescreen and that over 50% of priests are in fact anything but.
Those priests that have been outed as child abusers are mysteriously removed from their dioceses by the church and marked down officially as ‘on sick leave.’ No further explanations necessary.
A staggering 90 (6%) of all 1,500 priests active in just the Boston area are discovered to be involved in the scandal. A vast increase on the suspected total of 15.
Just how far does this thing go and why has it taken until now for it to properly come to light?
In Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, to mention but three, Spotlight boasts a strong cast that do a decent job in delivering Tom McCarthy’s interpretation of events. It’s subject matter that would be typically the domain of a full-on Hollywood treatment, which is why, in some ways, it’s a pleasant surprise that it doesn’t really take that approach.
If anything it’s a film in danger of being a little underplayed. As has been suggested elsewhere, Spotlight thankfully succeeds in avoiding the temptation for over-exaggerated scenes of desk-thumping and pained soul-searching, and whereas I’m all in favour of the more subtle approach to film creation, I worry in this instance that the necessary impact – considering the film’s rather antagonistic content – is perhaps a little lost in McCarthy’s direction; as detailed and carefully considered as it undoubtedly is.
Much like 2015’s Steve Jobs, Spotlight is a film heavy on dialogue, albeit in a less voluminous, hence more palatable way. It’s also a film that will certainly stand up to repeat viewings, if for no other reason than to fully ingest and indeed digest the copious details that it discloses.
Spotlight falls a bit short of being considered a defining film within its genre, but nevertheless it’s a welcome and necessary piece whose strong message addresses admirably an issue that was for far too long ignored.
One would hope that mainstream film-making of contentious, religion-fueled issues will not stop here?
The oft-ridiculed Catholic church has become a bit of an easy target over the years, that much is true, and the fallout from criticising and exposing its failings is perceived to be low-risk enough to make any such actions worthwhile, yet religion-caused atrocities, equally deserving of mainstream artistic criticism, yet never so confidently publicly reviled, remain the stuff of unsubstantiated rumour and insinuation, and most importantly, prevalent, the world over.
I await their exposé, though I shan’t be holding my breath.