Monday, March 6, 2017

Inverted Inquisitions: Some thoughts on Martin Scorsese's Silence

Inverted Inquisitions: Some Thoughts on Martin Scorsese's Silence

During the few days between when I turned in my Fall semester grades and began polishing my syllabi for the Spring I walked to my local cinema for a matinée treat. I am actually lucky enough to live a few blocks from a great little movie theatre –Teaneck Cinema- that offers a mix of big Hollywood and more artsy films. I took advantage of their matinée discount on a cold and overcast Tuesday and saw Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, Silence. It was a strange form of vacation escape- a film about torture, trials of faith, betrayal and love for a silent God. Years of studying the Inquisition will mess with your sense of “fun”!

The NYTimes Magazine did a great job giving the back story to the making of Scorsese’s passion project:  Scorsese first became interested in this story about the persecution of Portuguese Jesuits and their humble peasant converts after finishing his first great “religious” film, the controversial “Last Temptation of Christ”. The difficulty of finishing and releasing that film complicated Scorsese’s ability to sell this admittedly more obscure and possibly darker project to Hollywood executives. It became a slow-burning passion project for Scorsese that after 20 years he is able to bring to the screen.

Silence is an adaptation of the novel by the Shusaku Endo and it is based on real events that transpired in the 17th century. The Jesuits initially had great success with sharing the Gospel in the far way islands of Japan beginning with Francis Xavier in 1549. Japanese authorities eventually saw the missionizing as integral to European designs at carving up Japanese territory and markets and they initiated a brutal campaign against the Church. They targeted priests and then turned to their followers. Our film begins with a scene of slow, aesthetically searing torture of a priest. He is tied to a cross on the edge of hot springs as the torturer drips the burning water on his chest. We watch this scene along with the spiritually broken former priest Cristóvão Ferreira (fully inhabited by Liam Neeson) who after renouncing his faith is forced to watch the martydom of his fellow priests. Scorsese forces us to stay with this scene, to inhabit the shoes of the failed priest Ferreira as he is forced to watch his companions, many of whom were his students, suffer in ways that he could not.

Scorsese brings us inside the dark huts of the crypto-Christians as they hear mass, confess their sins, baptize their children. Scorsese lets us listen in as they clamor for promises of a better life in the world to come, and we see the bafflement in the eyes of the young priest who are ministering to them. These are sophisticated mystics, worldly, philosophically-minded zealots. For them this is a journey of the soul, it is about the ineffable place where the divine fire burns, the scared, starved Japanese peasant’s concerns are not their own. They have no babies who may not make it through the winter; they are amazed at the peasants’ ability to suffer for their faith, to suffer, to protect each other.

Eventually their hiding place is revealed by the same Judas-like scoundrel whose wretchedness and contrition will continually beguile the priests who can’t deny him the forgiveness he asks for, no matter how many times he will betray them.  Scorsese gives us a seat as Rodrigues’ encounters with the Japanese Inquisitor, with his sophistication, his arrogance and controlled rage. Is this an inverted mirror of a certain image of the Catholic inquisitor, probing, urbane, ruthless? Is the use of the term “inquisitor” anachronistic, off? Did the Japanese see their persecution of the Christians as an inquisition? Were the Japanese aware of the procedure of the Iberian inquisition? Were the cruelties of the Japanese against their Christians an echo of the images of inquisitorial torture made famous by the partisans of the “black legend” or was it a result of the universality of intolerance and the madness that grips us when we feel we have “God on our side” against a diabolical enemy?

The film engages, without resolving the big questions which came to the fore with the first age of global expansion in the early modern period—what does it mean to have a universal truth in such a diverse world? how can the world and experience be captured truthfully when the world we are seeing is so far from the world of our countrymen? Can truth be translated? What is lost in translation? Can we understand the other without knowing their language? Can there be encounter without conquest?

It was disorienting to see Christians on trial for their beliefs- to see them tortured for their beliefs- the horror-fueled thrill that the young Jesuits feel at seeing these poor peasants suffer like the primitive Church, praying in the dark like they did in the catacombs, to see their piety put to the test as they are crucified and given sake instead of vinegar like Jesus on the cross.

And then to see how the inquisitors figure out how to break them --not through pain and suffering but by upending what it means to be a Christian. They subvert their faith with the essence of the faith itself. The priests are compelled to reject the faith in order to fulfill it- reject Jesus in order to imitate him. They don’t torture the priest- they torture the flock until the priest sacrifices his belief for them. What a cruel antinomian impulse.

After the film I am also struck by the universal ability of good, cultured men to enact tremendous cruelty in the name of a high ideal. In this case the cause is about cultural purity and defense from foreign influence and the inroads of colonialism- can you blame them? And yet, might there have been another way?

To Rodrigues he sees the church as universal and not connected to politics- the Japanese see that as laughable/naïve and extremely dangerous.

Some thoughts on language:  The Jesuits speak with an accent- an indeterminate accent, the contemporary Hollywood move to create a foreignness while keeping our handsome stars speaking English- their faithful converts all use a little Portuguese when they refer to a religious concept and they know some Latin prayers.  The promise of the Church is expressed in a supposedly universal language which is disconnected from political entanglements.  Thus the power of the Latin mass invoked from Poland to Spain to Mexico to the Philippines. But culture is not universal and it is never divorced from political and soico-economic trends. Latin is after all the classical language of Europe and bears no kinship to the rich cultural legacies of the non-European world. It is a universal call but coded in western hegemony.  Can any cross-cultural encounter be free and equal? Silence is also a study in what happens when we face the other. It sketches the limits of our comprehension.

Silence captures the complexity of the religious experience and shows what happens as the soul is on trial, and it is stretched beyond itself. It also conjures a moment of cultural confrontation- an encounter between East and West where suspicion, appropriation and misunderstanding commingles with a desire to see the gifts that the other brings from afar.

Silence received only one nomination at the Oscars this year. La-la-land it is not! It is not an easy movie to watch but it is transporting and moving and well worth the investment. 

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