In the interview book Scorsese on Scorsese, discussing his 1984 film The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese talked about his reaction to people telling him Raging Bull was so visually beautiful: “I decided my next picture was going to be 1903 style, more like Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman, with no close-ups.” An eccentric decision, arguably, but one that it takes someone who is both a cinephile and a cineaste to make. Scorsese then recounts Sergio Leone telling him at Cannes that The King of Comedy was Scorsese’s most “mature” film. “I don’t know if this was his way of saying he didn’t like it,” Scorsese muses. He continues: “[O]ver the years my friends and I have had a running joke about slow movies, where the camera doesn’t move, as being ‘mature.’ I read in the Village Voice that Jim Jarmusch , who made Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, said something like ‘I’m not interested in taking people by the hair and telling them where to look.’ Well, I do want them to see the way I see. Walking down the street, looking quickly about, tracking, panning, zooming, cutting and all that sort of thing. I like it when two images go together and they move. I guess it might not be considered ‘mature,’ but I enjoy it.”
It’s worth remembering that this portion of the book was recorded in the late 1980s, around the time that Scorsese was making Goodfellas. He has made almost twenty features since them, some fiction films, some documentaries. He has also aged, of course. So maybe he’s “matured” in ways of which that he’s not aware. I still believe he’s committed, as a filmmaker, to sharing his vision, the way he sees things, with the viewer. In his new film Silence he does so in a way that seems, at first viewing, rather different from his customary method. In terms of cinema style, it’s a movie whose story seems rather simply told. And that’s true. But the simplicity of the telling is the result of a remarkable distillation. Everything that Scorsese knows about filmmaking is in this movie. Nothing that is unnecessary to his vision of both the narrative and the questions that inform it—no, that fuel it, with a consistent restless passion—is included here.
The opening title, with its sounds of nature followed by absence of sound, constitutes an arguably almost literal-minded demonstration of the movie’s theme, but that plainness is purposeful. The movie opens with a tense conversation—more than torture and depredation, this movie is about verbal exchanges, what they can achieve and what they cannot—and after it conclude in an interior setting, goes outside, where a quiet but meticulous eye-of-some-kind-of-God high angle shot of three priests descending sets of outdoor steps contextualizes the place of this exchange in their immediate settings.
Yes, there is moving camera in this movie—see the following scene, when Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe are led through the marketplaces and into a bustling inn to meet their constant-sinner guide to Japan, Kichijiro. The camera snakes with them though dank alleyways. But there are cuts also; this camera movement is not of the sort that immediately awes with its virtuosity, like the celebrated Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas. (It’s important to remember that as much as critics and analysts and armchair film buffs get caught up in reacting directly to that sort of style, Scorsese himself is not a style-for-its-own sake filmmaker. As he stated, he puts his films together to reflect how he sees things, and the Copacabana shot has the dramatic effect of impressing on the viewer just the kind of high life young Henry Hill was treating himself to on a fluid and constant basis.
For all its attention to detail in depicting the trappings of 17th century life in is settings, Silence is shot and edited with a directness and immediacy of the sort that Scorsese has not brought to bear on his prior period films. The Age of Innocence, from its narration outward, applies a cinematic equivalent of high literary irony to its approach. Kundun has a detachment, a sense of the filmmaker trying to find his way into the story, which yielded a kind of magic-lantern magic realism. With The Last Temptation of Christ Scorsese has explicitly stated he was trying to immerse himself in a timeless feeling of antiquity, which led to the liberal use of ultra-slow motion in some of its desert scenes. There is almost no slow-motion in Silence. One shot, another overheard view that bobbles into an almost 360 degree view resolving with a gorgeous skyscape, of the boat to Japan making its way over the sea, is the only such shot I discerned on a second viewing of the movie. [UPDATE: It was pointed out to me after I posted that OF COURSE there's another, very prominent use of slow-motion, in one of the film's most crucial scenes. Weirdly, it did not register for me as such both times I watched the movie, so had Scorsese built my willful suspension of disbelief; it felt as if my eyes and ears were genuinely registering it at the slower speed because that's the speed at which it was actually occurring, not that the filmmaker had manipulated those factors. Another exhibit in favor of the film's mastery, I reckon.] (And of course the film is quite a bit different tonally from Scorsese’s prior fiction feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, whose high energy made it a little easy to ignore/miss its near-Swiftian rage, which Scorsese, who as an artist has always distrusted the perspective of the moralist—Travis Bickle was something of a moralist as we recall—casts in the mode of sardonicism.) The directness brings home the movie’s ideas in a terrifically full-bodied way.
Scorsese the director lets the dialogue of the screenplay, by himself and Jay Cocks, really breathe, and gives his wonderful actors all kinds of room. One of the most crucial sequences is the conversation between the frustrated, but still possessed-of-his-wits, Rodrigues, and the inquisitor Inouye (a really magnificent performance by Issei Ogata), in which the two bat around metaphoric terms—“concubine,” “ugly woman,” “barren woman”—in an argument over whether Japan needs, or can even bear, the Church. In its staging and shooting, it rather resembles a scene in Scorsese’s Casino in which a Western good-old-boy played by L.Q. Jones expresses some complaint to Robert De Niro’s casino boss Rothstein. Differences in camera placement aside, both scenes are simple shot/reverse shot exchanges in which Scorsese lets the verbal stresses determine the cutting. In Casino, Jones’ character tells Rothstein, “You people will never understand the way it works out here.” (!!!!) while in Silence Ogata pulls off a truly inspired and comic bit of acting by seeming to literally deflate with disappointment at Rodrigues’ intransigence. People who insist on skepticism concerning the director’s role might argue that in both cases Scorsese was merely letting the actors do their jobs, but in these movies the viewer feels the judgment inherent in both the blocking and the cutting that’s not present in the work of less inspired/conscientious filmmakers. So too is there added value in the way Scorsese breaks up his frame with wooden beams, in the quick cuts in close up of Rodrigues as he begins to go mad (I ought to mention that second time around I appreciated Andrew Garfield’s layered performance a good deal more than the first), in the judicious use of dissolves in the movie’s epilogue. And of course the most virtuoso filmmaking of the piece, the scene where Rodrigues comes to his most crucial decision. It’s just crushing, not least for the way it’s set up. Liam Neeson’s Ferreira, speaking to his former student of “a suffering only you can end,” tells Rodrigues his sacrifice will be “the greatest act of love ever performed,” and Rodrigues’ Japanese interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, great) tells the priest, “It’s just a formality.” Which is it, for God’s sake? And then the soundtrack drops out for the second time.
There are stray scenes and shots in Silence that overtly recall those of Scorsese’s influences, mentors, friends. (Scorsese has always been resourceful in the way he uses his influences; the close-up of Travis’ diary reading “they cannot touch her” is so perfectly and aptly executed that one would never have thought it was inspired by a similar—albeit very fleeting—shot in Contempt had Scorsese himself not pointed it out.) The lighting and color in the scenes in which the priests land in Japan have traces of Powell and Pressburger, specifically of course Black Narcissus. The lessons of Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Paul Schrader’s Big Three of “transcendental style,” Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, are all shown to have been fully absorbed here, but not always in expected ways. The fog during the boat trip to Goto brought to mind Dreyer’s Vampyr, not an explicitly religious film in terms of theme but a strangely spiritual one nonetheless. Some of the dual close-ups have a definite touch of Bergman. And the film’s final shot struck me as a macro-to-micro reverse of the last shot in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but of course it hearkens back to Citizen Kane as well. In the end Silence is remarkably only itself, and a great film in a great film tradition.