The First Image: on Martin Scorsese and "Silence"

A pivotal moment in Martin Scorsese’s Silence finds a thirsty Jesuit missionary, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), kneeling to drink from a stream. As his weathered reflection peers back from the water, Rodrigues’ visage transmogrifies into a Baroque image of Christ, a face that, for his whole life, has fascinated, consoled, and nourished him. Momentarily arrested, Rodrigues’ own face reemerges and he deliriously laughs, possessed in an intimate rapture that only he understands. Splashing water in the radiating sun creates a dazzling in-camera imperfection, a flaw in the mediating tool of reality and its figuristic representation. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut around Rodrigues from multiple angles, the priest’s point-of-view accompanied by silently omniscient vantages alongside the perspective of a mysterious onlooker. In the puddle we see a Japanese samurai there to arrest Rodrigues. A cloth sack spills out the priest’s possessions, the most conspicuous being a cross. The indifferent water, dirt, and rocks in this wider angle play against the intimations of immortality the cross projects through Rodrigues’ mind. The cross’ image, abjectly disposable when dwarfed by indifferent natural phenomena, isn’t separate from him. By adoration of sight, it is him. 

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Rodrigues converges with the idealized mimesis as he drinks from the puddle, imbibing Christ but also imbibing himself. The other angles show the objective plane in which he’s just drinking water. Earlier, Rodrigues and his fellow padre, Father Garupe (Adam Driver), having just landed on forbidden Japanese shores, are given food by the “Kakure Kirishitans” (Hidden Christians) of Tomogi Village. Rodrigues protests that the poor villagers must be hungry themselves, but an elder, Ichizo (Yoshi Oida), tells them, “It is you who feeds us.” Another villager, Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamotu), sees the cross Rodrigues wears, the priest reading the man’s gaze before handing him the holy trinket. A cricket’s chirp accompanies the cross’ delicate journey between hands like a piece of music; Mokichi takes the cross and presses it passionately to his forehead, closing his eyes.

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How can images mean so much that they’re taken as nourishment? Rodrigues and Garupe are in Japan in search of their teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whom we’re told “shaped the world” for them. Scorsese’s religious evocations correspond to his fixation of a moviegoer and moviemaker, in front of his own canvas and splaying himself out creatively, a century of aesthetic antecedents looming over his cinema brushstrokes. His passion for film preservation has grown in relation to his age, and his late period work, most conspicuously the 3-D fantasy Hugo (2011), focus on the sanctity of memory, of cherishing and finally resurrecting an image beheld in the distant past. That image to which the Scorsesean seer offers devotion has personal significance that would be commensurate with cosmological significance. It shaped the seer’s sense of relational identity and in the labyrinth of Christian discernment, shapes the world. 

Images as nourishment: Abbas Kiarostami’s  Close-Up  (1990),  Silence  (2016)

Images as nourishment: Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), Silence (2016)

The sacred relation between the viewer and the image in Scorsese even gains resonance when we consider his relationship with the late Abbas Kiarostami, whom Scorsese eulogized in 2016, and the Iranian filmmaker’s cinephile protagonist Hossein Sabzian in Close-Up (1990), who assumes the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s identity, expressing that his film The Cyclist “is a part of me.” One may scoff at the villagers in Silence groveling in tears at the plain sight of priests, something congruent to Tibetans recognizing the 14th Dali Lama in Scorsese’s last blatantly religious film Kundun (1997), but it’s also how young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) reacts to the film A Trip to the Moon (1902), and how Sabzian weeps with reverence once Makhmalbaf touches him.  

Who’s That Knocking at My Door?  (1968)

Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968)

Fifty years ago, the first image in a Martin Scorsese feature was a Madonna with child, placed in front of a mirror where a maternal figure (played by the director’s mother, Catherine) prepares a feast for children. This film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968), and the Eucharistic mien sets up Scorsese’s entire filmography, where between happenstance, plot, and drama are the representative icons impressed upon—and, as with those children at Mama Scorsese’s table, nourishing—his characters and creating their world, affecting how these people see and in turn impress upon the world with their own eyes. For Scorsese, what viewers encounter in the church and on movie screens is sacred.

Mean Streets  (1973)

Mean Streets (1973)

Scorsese’s seminal breakthrough Mean Streets (1973) sets its credits to a 16mm home movie glimpsing the Lower East Side world of young Italian American wise guy Charlie (Harvey Keitel). Life interrupted by the camera, the characters are established as social performers fashioning a self-image while, as we see a cake served to celebrate an infant’s baptism, they’re simultaneously fed by the culture’s representative symbols and rituals. What sets Charlie apart from the tribe is how in his solitary reflection he seems to be pursuing the primal imprint, the opening projection and “demiurge” that echoes like God’s voice creating Light in Genesis, the communal link predicating tribes, discord, and sin, an assimilation with the Creator known to these characters through images. 

The first image:  Hugo  (2011)

The first image: Hugo (2011)

The filmmaker’s own images communicate unrestrained subjectivity, mechanical tools of cutting, movement, lighting, sound, and music impressing themselves on the viewer. What happens psychologically when we see in relation to how we see? This central theme now finds its most declarative resonance in Silence, a story 300 years removed from Manhattan’s mean streets and upon the shores of feudal Japan where missionaries clandestinely import images in hopes of changing hearts and minds. The Japanese shogunate forces Christians to apostatize, their renunciation of faith formalized in stepping on a bronze plate of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, known as the fumi-e. In making Silence, Scorsese invests faith in an audience that very well may be baffled by pre-Newtonian worldviews of characters carrying a perspective led by an engrained symbology, where terrestrial phenomena is bound to transcendent reference: hot springs evoke Hell, whereas a passing eagle is “God’s sign.” It’s a leap of faith to expect viewers to identify with the problem of stepping on a piece of bronze, blotting out the picture on the metal with one’s foot. 

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The challenge of Silence is in its relationship with the image, and from that relationship we wonder what these pictures and representations mean to Scorsese.  In recent talks (including his written afterward to a book of essays about Shusako Endo’s novel Silence), Scorsese emphasizes Sergei Eisenstein’s “Third Meaning”—putting one image together with another image which creates a third image in the mind’s eye, generating something that speaks to the individual viewer but is unseen. Scorsese appropriates the Soviet director for his Catholicism, the intersection of dialectical montage becoming the Cross: the terrestrial earth colliding with mythic symbol, the Flesh manifesting the Word, True Man meeting True God, or the fiercely coded violent hierarchies outside young Scorsese’s Elizabeth Street tenement, when just around the block on Mott an asthmatic child found sanctuary and lessons of selfless compassion in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

In its collection of shot-reverse-shot exchanges between disparate worldviews, Silence revels in the hidden, inward image—the Third Meaning—born out of paradox much like what Rodrigues sees in his reflection, and climactically experiences when the fumi-e of Christ tells him to go ahead and step upon him—and as such it is one of Scorsese’s most formally daring pictures.

The “image” within Scorsese’s career is its own paradox, an evasion from reality that one may liken to the trappings of faith. On another level, the image is the means by which his solitary heroes (and anti-heroes) engage with reality. 

In Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, the young protagonist J.R. (Keitel) finds his relationship with a girl (Zina Bethune) banjaxed after discovering she was raped, something for which he has trouble forgiving her. He attempts to make amends by eventually offering such forgiveness, which she naturally rejects. J.R.’s subsequent struggle is expressed in a church montage, the camera tracking around pietas and zooming towards crucifixes, one of which he kisses, the blood of Christ dripping from J.R.’s mouth. The girl’s rape plays out in his mind, the film freezing on her leg as she screams. Her pain becomes “filmographic,” a representation of suffering imprinted in his mind, and it’s as if through the transfiguration of real life into a movie that her suffering, like Christ’s (as the blood suggests), finally becomes real for J.R., a jarring intersection between life and its representation. 

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Taxi Driver (1976) has some of Scorsese’s most heralded scenes of perception. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) frequents pornographic theaters (though he seems sexually detached from what he’s watching), is lost in a trance before his television, and, after working to change his own self image through exercise and acquiring weapons, talks to himself in the mirror.  The style of the film adopts his inner perspective, worshipfully idealizing Travis’ object of desire, political volunteer Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), just as it stresses a kind of menace toward black characters, suggesting Travis’ tacit racism. Is his perception of the world so skewered that he really doesn’t recognize how Betsy would find being taken to a pornographic movie offensive? Or is this a pathological means of showing her how disgusting he finds his own self-image, towards which he will, after all, point a gun and simulate murder in the “You Talking to Me?” scene? In viciously “rescuing” child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a shady pimp (Keitel) and his gangster associates, the hyperbolic violence could be seen as both corporeally realistic and as a heightened horror-show expression of Travis’ state of mind as he assails specters with which his repressed thoughts of women find uncomfortable kinship. Travis’ salvation is to become part of an infernal Renaissance canvas of carnage, though his survival hurls him from a religious painting to black and white newspaper as a headline hero. The film’s final moments reveal that his hidden self-image still looms, indicated by Travis’s anxious eyes catching his reflection in the cab’s rearview mirror. 

In the concluding scene of Raging Bull (1980), former boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro) rehearses a spoken word performance to a greenroom mirror. While LaMotta’s abusive behavior as a husband indicates a beastly lack of conscientiousness, it becomes apparent that the punishment he both dishes out and absorbs is characteristic of a man full of self-loathing, evading his sins through force and noise. As with Mean Streets, the meanness and jealousy of LaMotta’s home life is contrasted with the black-and-white film’s only color sequence, a home movie where everyone smiles and performs for the camera, which with Pietro Mascagni’s opera music is so affecting that it’s very easy to remember other scenes in Raging Bull in the same faded hues. Having alienated himself from his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and second ex-wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), and his middle-age appetites betraying the stealth muscle tone fetishized by the camera earlier in the film’s vivid boxing sequences, LaMotta remains a performer, quoting Marlon Brando’s speech to a treacherous brother in On the Waterfront. It would seem that LaMotta has at last recognized himself, the allusion to On the Waterfront significant being that Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic is the movie in which Scorsese and many other working class New Yorkers first recognized themselves and their world on a big screen. 

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Home movies:  Raging Bull  (1980) and  The King of Comedy  (1983)

Home movies: Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1983)

Rupert Pupkin (De Niro again) in The King of Comedy is so affected by the image—specifically late night television talk shows—that he cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality, holding imagined “televised” interviews with movie stars and private dinner conversations with his hero, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), in his mother’s basement. Langford is similarly trapped, pursued by demanding acolytes like Pupkin and an obsessive stalker (Sandra Bernhard), unable to walk candidly in public without dozens of people seeking acknowledgement or autographs. Pupkin’s ridiculous appearance obscures a hidden unhappy life of abuse and neglect, but none of it registers as ever really having actually happened until his pain is transmogrified into a comedy act televised for millions of viewers. Conversely, it’s implied that Langford, who we see at home in a manner befitting a surveillance camera, has no inner life whatsoever—aside from, oddly enough, his attention being caught for a few moments by a classic black and white movie playing on one of his home’s many screen monitors. 

 In Life Lessons (1989), painter Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) needs the presence of his detached assistant and ex-lover Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), his desire and jealousy exploding on his canvases with the paints splashing back on him, reinforcing how he’s not differentiated from the image he’s creating. Paulette refers to herself as “a human sacrifice” as Lionel carries on, the organ of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” transmuting the melancholy love story’s erotic longing into a film about ecclesiastical devotion, the artist—like Scorsese—chasing down an inscrutable image, sparked by carnal flesh but directed towards the sublime, an alchemy necessary to allow such frustrated adoration to breath. It’s both selfish and worshipful, Lionel’s ferociously muted parley with pictures—and Paulette—a means of striving to eternalize the transient. Paulette moves on, replaced by a new apprentice, which makes his role as image-maker akin to a priest sanctifying a harvest where Paulette is, indeed, a human sacrifice. He only thrives in this ocular St. Vitus dance transmitting from the object of his desire through him and then onto a canvas. That’s where his love is actualized. The Image hangs over life, and it’s no accident that the Dobie painting Scorsese finds most interesting looks like a sequence of crosses. 

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Impressing oneself on the image:  Life Lessons  (1989) and  The Last Temptation of Christ  (1988)

Impressing oneself on the image: Life Lessons (1989) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

And the cross is what Scorsese’s Jesus (Willem Dafoe) says has hovered over his whole life in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). It’s what we first see him putting together as a carpenter, and it’s his final destination, where an object of torture and death mysteriously becomes an icon, which in turn hangs over the consciences of Scorsese’s heroes as if it was looking at them and assessing judgment. If it’s not the cross, it’s another persistent image demanding espousal to them, like the television spotlight in The King of Comedy, a dead girl haunting an EMT (Nicolas Cage) in Bringing Out the Dead (1999), or the view of Boston’s Beacon Hill curiously transfixing undercover criminal mole Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed (2006, a film full of hidden crosses in the background). 

The last image that haunts everything preceding it: Beacon Hill in  The Departed  (2006)

The last image that haunts everything preceding it: Beacon Hill in The Departed (2006)

Casting off the arresting object, as Christ does the cross during his last temptation, or Newland Archer (Countess Olenska) walking away from one more gaze at Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in The Age of Innocence (1993), enables Scorsese’s heroes to sustain “normal” lives as men struggling to repress what holds their mind’s eye fixed, the image reminding them of who they really are. Even Cape Fear (1991), perhaps one of Scorsese’s least personal offerings, is about a man living in bad faith, lawyer Sam Bowden (Nolte), pursued and terrorized by an almost preternatural figure, Max Cady (De Niro), whose tattooed body is a sculpted temple replete with iconography denoting a reality Bowden cannot face. The icons decorating Lower East Side hangouts (Raging Bull), toilet graffiti of castration (After Hours), luxurious portraits in aristocratic 19th century salons (The Age of Innocence), antique newspaper illustrations of cataclysmic riots (Gangs of New York), or drawings depicting methods of treating the mentally ill (Shutter Island) denote an even more vivid reality than their live-action accompaniments. In Kundun, the young Dali Lama recoils in fear from the horrifying countenance of a goddess painted on a wall; he’s consoled by an elder monk, who explains that this figure, “Penden Llamo,” has the sacred duty to protect him. “Is she real or pretend?” the boy asks. “She’s real,” the monk answers. 

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Manhattan’s ever-changing countenance:  Gangs of New York  (2002)

Manhattan’s ever-changing countenance: Gangs of New York (2002)

This would bear less significance if Scorsese didn’t want us reflecting on our own role as viewers. The definitive example is Raging Bull, the enigmatic post-script indicating how what we have just done is partake in a sacrament. The passage from the New Testament Gospel of John, 9.24-26, tells about the blind man given sight by Jesus, the Pharisees demanding to know if “this man” (Jesus) is a sinner, to which the healed man says he doesn’t know, just that once he was blind and now he can see. This is followed by Scorsese’s personal dedication to his film teacher at NYU, Haig P. Moonigian, the director making his film a testament to seeing, Jake LaMotta’s redemption not achieved in a dramatic gesture, but in our own exercise of watching this ostensibly unforgivable human being.

I believe the biblical passage has less to do with LaMotta than with two other variables: Scorsese and ourselves. In making it and in watching it, cinema changes how we see by showing us how we are and, considering the way Scorsese cinematographer Michael Chapman, and editor Schoonmaker take us into LaMotta’s head, how we see, the movie theater being its own road to Damascus (as Harry Dean Stanton’s Saul/Paul says in Last Temptation of his life changing encounter with Christ, “He made me see!”) It’s a sentiment that perhaps doesn’t carry much stock in the days of “cancel culture,” the courage of engagement wedged out by active boycotts (dubiously justified by economic arguments by people quite willing to give their money to large corporations, which unlike human beings are incapable of self-appraisal). 

The sand-painting in  Kundun  (1997), ritual and representation folding over each other

The sand-painting in Kundun (1997), ritual and representation folding over each other

As we move from Scorsese’s mid-career to his late period, what becomes increasingly clear is a melancholic realization of the image’s transience, its growing power in tandem with its disposability, as Representation has become Reality TV, the religious link to the past more of a grating digital skip of Right Now perpetuity. It’s a hallmark theme of his late period, as his drive for film preservation has become more passionate. 

Reality and representation interrupting each other:  The Wolf of Wall Street  (2013)

Reality and representation interrupting each other: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Gangs of New York (2002), a film bookended by close-ups of eyes opening and closing, concludes with the Manhattan skyline changing over a century, the crosses marking the graves of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) evaporating quickly, as if their rivalry and passions were never there. Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Aviator (2004) is creating the future through engineering and moviemaking, but as his mind boils over like an overheated engine, he feels “like I’m flying blind,” his final encounter with a mirror, in which he sees “the way of the future,” starkly cutting to black. In Shutter Island (2010), Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) struggles to hold onto memories of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) featured in flashbacks that stress visual FX supervisor Rob Legato’s digitally enhanced backdrops and augmentation, where Dolores eventually disintegrates as a heap of binary code ash in Teddy’s arms. Hugo is a gorgeous template of 3D computer wizardry linking the film we’re seeing to the lost automaton of film pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), who’s given up on life since his dreams-on-celluloid were destroyed. And The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) similarly recreates 1990s New York as an enclosed, privileged bubble, much of it the work of green screen process shots while intimating the seductive and hypnotizing aesthetic of television advertising, at one point even suturing an infomercial of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio once more) into the picture’s narrative thread as federal agents stop the show to arrest him. 

Shutter Island  (2010)

Shutter Island (2010)

Truth, in spatial photography and human relationships, is increasingly marginalized, and the image has depleting value in virtual oversaturation. Looking for the “authentic” image and preserving it, is itself a religious problem and journey in Scorsese’s work. We’re drowning in iconography and pictures, but the search for an authentic image is, for Scorsese, somewhat akin to the search for a god. And that leads us to Silence.

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In Silence, the image is of paramount importance, even as it’s denigrated. Forms struggle to take definitive shape in the fog. Who is creating the image? The opening near the Hot Spring “Hells” of Japan suggests a Western sensibility projected onto the alien “end of the world” (such as Japan was to Europeans in 1640), the film’s first image in that airy grey soup being an assortment of decapitated heads arranged on a scaffold as a samurai stands underneath with his jingasa rim obscuring his eyes (and so the Japanese point-of-view) from the camera’s selected angle. The revered Ferreira is ushered into the frame and the film accents how he’s compelled to watch the torture of fellow Christians, Neeson’s winces showing that what his eyes see are connected to what the body undergoes during water torture—and meanwhile, across the screen, the mirror neurons of the audience’s optics respond with similar sympathy. The back-and-forth of padres in agony and Ferreira’s point-of-view curiously cuts to the Jesuit onlooker bereft of his ennobling garments in a wider shot, as if what he’s seen has stripped him. He collapses on his knees to the ashen ground and while his letter, spoken in voice-over, is a prayer assured of how his faith will endure in spite of these atrocities, the film cuts to a close-up of his face bending in pain and doubt, not cutting away until Ferreira’s eyes close.  

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The sympathy of optics in  Silence ,.

The sympathy of optics in Silence,.

Silence is working out how fragmented our contexts are in unveiling the world for us, dictating in many ways how we see it, vividly demonstrated by how Scorsese and Schoonmaker structure the subsequent conversation in Macao between Rodrigues, Garupe, and the church rector Father Valigano (Ciaran Hinds) with a few startling cuts between the young Jesuits’ point-of-view on their master, spatially a minor shift of perspective but so bizarre—given how we’ve been conditioned to the syntax of shot-reverse-shot close-ups—in how it stresses how definite the split in perception is between individuals. 

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Jarring close-up cross-cutting in  Silence,  demarcating two subjects in dialogue with one object.

Jarring close-up cross-cutting in Silence, demarcating two subjects in dialogue with one object.

When Rodrigues is brought before the governor Inoue (Issey Ogata)—who is responsible for the death and torture of thousands of Christians—the priest assesses the samurai not by what’s said (he barely understands Japanese), but by sight. “Did you understand what I said?” Inoue asks. “I saw your eyes,” replies Rodrigues. “Oh, and what do you think you saw there?” suggesting the samurai understands the problem of cultural discord more than the priest, as even among the Japanese Christians there is a significant revision of perspective from their European teachers. 

There is dislocation and solitude in seeing, our traumas privately trapped within us. This is the dramatic problem of the pathetic apostate Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobuzuka), loathing himself because he can’t forget the sight of his family burning for refusing to apostatize. The persistent fire in his mind diminished with the presence of Rodrigues and Garupe, or the consoling intercession of a communal perspective. 

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After Rodrigues and Garupe have begun hiding in Tomogi, we hear the villagers discuss how they carry on worship without the aid of guiding priests. Their faith rests in a unifying omniscience overlooking their prayers and rituals. “God sees us,” Mokichi says of their hidden Christian practices. They need to believe in that unseen and interceding point-of-view, being that their spiritual discourse is carried out in secret. The communal Third Person announces itself in Silence, not simply in the memorable “God’s Eye View” shot overlooking the three Jesuits in Macao, but in how their place in the frame references a symbol, specifically the cross, initiating a sacrament underneath the exposition. This fulminates to the figural Eucharist as Christ speaks to Rodrigues, concluding with the film’s final image of the homunculus crucifix, smuggled by his silent wife into Rodrigues’ funeral sarcophagus. 

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Crossing vectors in  SIlence

Crossing vectors in SIlence

Above the Macao church stairs, the lines of which point vertically, the Jesuits walk across horizontally; soon following is a lush process shot looking over a sea ship, with the Jesuits onboard, moving up vertically and breaking waves slanted horizontally, the image arcing upward to the sun; and as the villagers guide the padres horizontally through the frame by vivid torchlight, the film cuts to another space where those torches move vertically. God is not merely above the world gazing, but in the material world—of flesh, stone, wood, water, soil, and fire—as the film repeatedly makes the sign of the cross, the silent means by which the Tomogi villagers signal their solidarity with the covert padres. “Introibo ad altare Dei” (“Now I stand before the altar of God”) Rodrigues says at the hidden mass with the Kakure Kirishitans, and Scorsese establishes how the altar of God is, if not by the objective components of phenomena than by what the believer projects in the consonance of inward mind to eye to external objects, everywhere. 

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Horizontal movement of the flames, cuts to vertical movement. Another sign of the cross.

Horizontal movement of the flames, cuts to vertical movement. Another sign of the cross.

As Rodrigues prays, Scorsese removes all the sound save for his voice-over, which he will repeat during the climactic moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy. Rodrigues mentions how all his life Christ’s face fascinated him and continues to fill him with wonder. Scorsese holds the image on Christ’s inscrutable countenance, drawing us in with the weight of the image. In Endo’s novel, Rodrigues wonders, “What did the face of Christ look like? This point the Bible passes over in silence.” How can this face then be so certain in the minds of millions, being even the pith of their identities, and then vary depending on regions, Endo noting the “gentle face of Christ” in Western Europe as opposed to the long nose, curly hair, and black beard of Eastern Christians, or the “shepherd” adored by early Christians against the kingly authority in medieval times? In whatever form, the Christ image persists in believers like Rodrigues, who even though they’ve never witnessed miracles to justify their faith, can stalwartly move forth into danger and even die for it, meditating on Christ’s promise as Rodrigues does in his cage: “I will not abandon you. I will not abandon you. I will not abandon you.”

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But the image changes. The fair, open-eyed Christ in his mind collides with the bronze fumi-e upon which the priest will step, a haggard face whose eyes, we should notice, are closed, the figure removed from the spotless, abstract gallery headspace of Rodrigues’ memories, and now covered in dirt. As Rodrigues moves forward with his foot, we again see the Baroque Christ in close-up, then fading to black as the titular silence overtakes the film. 

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With the “formality” of public apostasy, God at last becomes tactile, Scorsese directing one of his most powerful sequences. Eyes close and an apocalypse occurs. The world has changed. Pure cinema takes hold with one of its most indelible inventions, silence, which doesn’t objectively exist and must be created in a soundproof studio—the world without form and void, out of which the Word emerges plosively (Christ’s voice, provided by Ciaran Hinds and so an antipode to the stern rector of doctrinal orthodoxy he portrayed early in the film, popping the last consonant while encouraging Rodrigues: “Step-peh,” the word becoming strangely alive with aural contours), and a new creation. 

Silence dwells within this cross-section of the externalized voice going inward, transcendence existing in the perfect silence we create. What’s interesting in that perfect silence is how we should consider the entire film’s curious sound design, particularly during the seaside crucifixion of Ichizo and Mokichi, where Scorsese insists on using the live recorded audio of Mokichi’s cries to God, upsetting the smooth consonance with the smoother sound effects of crashing waves. 

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This scene is a strident clash of live sound and artificial design, words flying up while the necessarily remaining below, as in that terrestrial and grating shout, Christ exists, suffering with the tortured. When Rodrigues’ own apostasy happens, the dirt and fire in slow motion emanate the sublime as much as—if not more than—Christ’s voice. As Christ later tells Rodrigues—through the unlikely confidant Kichijiro—“I was never silent,” a cross-image inconspicuously built into the house behind the former priest, a drape upon it quietly signifying the Resurrection. 

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In empty formalities like the fumi-e, there’s the paradoxical, affirming image that leads the viewer toward an inward awakening or illumination, which is characteristic of ritual where the sublime bursts up through platitudes, a “God Beyond God” to use Paul Tillich’s phraseology. The most ingenious representation of this in Silence is a juxtaposition of two specific moments, the first being a shot where the image cuts from a thirsting, solitary, and physically depleted Rodrigues to a close up on a rock where a water basin falls and breaks into pieces, the camera tilting up to show Kichijiro, apologetic for having lost the water, but promising Rodrigues nourishment at the nearby stream; the second is during the film’s epilogue, when the body of Rodrigues (having long lived as an apostate with a Japanese identity, “Okada San’emon”) is carried away from his house to a funeral pyre, his wife (Asuka Kurosawa) fulfilling a Buddhist funeral formality of smashing a cup on the ground. The set-up echoes Kichijiro’s motions near the stream (camera on the ground, cup smashing, quick tilt up to the face who dropped the water vessel). 

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These mirror images depict two betraying countenances, but on a deeper structural level they complete Rodrigues’ ineluctable journey towards the Christ image, the Grand Historical Figura, the initiation of his captivity (preceded by recognizing himself as Christ in the water for which he thirsts) and his release in death, where his hidden devotion to the image is hidden from outside observers and reserved for the special effects afforded to an omniscient movie camera. A public Buddhist formality becomes a covert and private transubstantiative Eucharist, a “third meaning” smuggled between visual pretenses. (There’s also certainly something to how the wife smashing the cup here echoes the last image in the work of one of Scorsese’s heroes, John Ford, where Anne Bankroft in the missionary drama 7 Women [1967] poisons a rapacious warlord by spiking his tea, then imbibing from the cup herself before smashing it). 

While Silence has been criticized for not giving female characters agency or a voice, the mute wife’s action, relayed to us in perfect accord by how the camera reads her face (the same motion of the ground to her mystifying countenance is given when she steps on the fumi-e earlier), the film’s most poignant and substantive depiction of revolt. Her final moment as the coffin leaves, standing in the center of a wide-screen frame alone, is another one of the film’s many hidden crosses, a holy affirmation of the unseen, and she fits right alongside Scorsesean players of hidden passion, like Lionel Dobie, Newland Archer, Frank Pierce, Billy Costigan, and Georges Melies. 

The excruciating scene where Rodrigues is brought to a beach and bears witness to the execution of some farmers, followed by his estranged colleague Garupe’s drowning, is mostly filmed from Rodrigues’ distant vantage. But the set up, beginning with Rodrigues being greeted as a privileged patron and then shown a comfortable seat with bouncing shade behind him, evokes cinema in its infancy. The role of his Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) isn’t simply that of a narrator, but what pioneering cinematographs described as the “explicador,” a figure describing the action for audiences not yet familiar with a visual language in its infancy. The Interpreter’s role is emphasized by how his dialogue—in contrast to Mokichi’s cries during his crucifixion—is dubbed over the action, his voice setting the scene and building up suspense for Rodrigues as if the Interpreter himself doesn’t know what’s going to happen: “What are those straw mats for?” he rhetorically asks before the mats are bound around the prisoners’ bodies. As they’re taken out to sea, he says, “The governor’s office will release the farmers if Father Garupe apostatizes. I hope Father Garupe agrees!” knowing full well the outcome while playing up the effect the scene will have in horrifying Rodrigues. Unable to save Garupe from doom, Rodrigues screams and lunges, but like us he’s powerless, much like the audience member submitting to the cinema reel’s unspooling and predetermined trajectory. The images of Rodrigues (and our) helpless perspective—for example, a decapitated corpse dragged in front of his cell, or Garupe’s lifeless body floating on placid water—will always haunt him. 

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The death of Garupe is a spectacle designed by Rodrigues’ captors, the translator functioning as a cinematic explicador describing the action of a silent movie to an audience.

The death of Garupe is a spectacle designed by Rodrigues’ captors, the translator functioning as a cinematic explicador describing the action of a silent movie to an audience.

The film’s form of perspective has more topical evocations, as in the earlier scene when Rodrigues looks through his panoptical cage, seeing the aftermath of a samurai decapitating a Christian, followed by a humiliating depravity of Kichijiro stepping on the fumi-e for the third time in the film, the vertical bars framing the action strikingly similar to present-day video shot on smart phones. We’re also reminded of the importance of mediation within our images, part of cinema’s DNA and development. We are circumscribed by the explicador’s voice or the camera phone’s claustrophobic vertical frame—a device perhaps maddening for cinephiles as its borders directly emphasize what’s left out of the frame, cutting the subject off from her surroundings. Disposable lives whose suffering on the wider canvas mean nothing, are catalogued and subsist in the viewer’s memory, but what use are the images persisting there if his identity is squandered, meaningless and memorialized as ridiculous posture in a picture frame? 

A  fumie-e  formality, Scorsese’s framing evoking modern day cell-phone videos which stress the vertical composition.

A fumie-e formality, Scorsese’s framing evoking modern day cell-phone videos which stress the vertical composition.

Silence meditates over a gulf of 400 years, to a time when we’re overwhelmed by images every minute, from YouTube to Instagram to Big Data surveillance to face apps to Google Earth to memes. “Reality” would seem to be more assured in such a world, but whether things are augmented or not, the “true image,” like the gods, doesn’t exist anymore. Terms coinciding with Silence’s inaugural season release were “Post-Truth” and “alternative facts.” The more we see, the less we know. Time Magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover story from the 1960s has been supplanted by the question, in the same font, asking “Is Truth Dead?” Modernity’s scrambled signal-to-noise almost relates to the problem of prayer or any inner dialogue, thought’s formless effervescence frustrated by its inability to manifest externally. Everything rambles in cybernetic ether. Scorsese’s vocative artform that he works to preserve is of course also losing form, the director’s upcoming film The Irishman financed by and mainly exhibited on the streaming service Netflix. He’s doubtless extremely cognizant about the image’s metamorphosis, and I’m not convinced he feels, to quote The Aviator, “the way of the future” is not in some way detrimental, or that cinema will endure as a substantial art in this Great Deluge of Content. 

The value of the image—like a cherished memory—strives to endure inwardly.  This is what makes Silence, and so much of Scorsese’s later output, topically significant at the moment, when the “subject” is negated by algorithms and categories, from governing factors ranging from the super-capitalist designs of Big Tech to unforgiving mobs of well-meaning wokesters. The flux of technology and “content” or public taste (whatever that means has become increasingly tribal) oversaturates the clarity of dialogical exchange. The silent, searching dialogue between subject and object evaporates in the hurricane of collective deliriums. A dialogue of understanding is sneered upon by those who demand textualized exercises of one’s beliefs (and God forbid it doesn’t correspond perfectly with those espoused by an in-group). There are rules of expression (for example, issuing apologies), disallowing any nuance in favor of total acquiescence. Such forms construct barriers for exchanging love: human compassion overruled by the compelled acts of an automaton. It’s consonant with a disgustingly cosmetic Reality TV president, and bespeaks a sociopathy in league with the mandates of capital. The platform of ideas (or “ideas”) is the stuff of clamoring Ted Talk “branding,” the adulating disciples of philosophical pop windbags a new grating confluence of tired platitudinal gospel truths. Gentrified hyper-capitalist landscapes are conjoined with gentrified thought. 

The light in  Silence ’s final image seems to come from within the corpse of Rodrigues.

The light in Silence’s final image seems to come from within the corpse of Rodrigues.

That sacred, internalized relationship—in relating to an image and to other people—is of more value than public adoration, sociopolitical “relevance,” the legitimacy of awards, and most especially box office numbers. This is conveyed in the closing image of Silence. The narration of a Dutch Protestant physician states that only God knows the truth about Rodrigues’ thoughts. The camera then breaks through the material boundaries of the closed coffin that burns in a funeral pyre. The lens is unobstructed as it moves in and rests on Rodrigues’ hand, the crucifix given to him by Mokichi resting there (covertly inserted into the casket by Rodrigues’ wife). Light surrounds it, but the key-light doesn’t seem to emanate from the fire encroaching onto the corpse from the outside. Rather, the illumination is—seemingly—from within Rodrigues. Truth, freedom, love, memory, landmarks, family, the divine, and art can all be demolished by powerful structural and natural forces. Perhaps we fight for the preservation of what we believe. But if it’s a hopeless fight, can we still close our eyes and hold the line, beholding an image that materializes in the opaque fog of thought?