Martin Scorsese gives a Japanese tale the Hollywood treatment in ‘Silence’

To better understand the filmmaker’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan, read Roland Barthes.

In his writings on semiotics, cinema and philosophy, Roland Barthes studies the relationship between signs and myths and the corresponding links these have with reality. Barthes’s approach to an object and its code are more relevant than ever to Martin Scorsese’s Silence. The 17th century-set narrative centres on a priest, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who goes to Japan from Portugal to investigate the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The film maps Rodrigues’s struggles to establish Christianity in Japan, until he is forced to give up his own faith.

Adapted from the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Scorsese’s film gives Japanese literature the Hollywood treatment. The rarified and atmospheric narrative is transposed into point-to-point dramatic action, with theatrical performances taking the place of the mood-oriented approach on the page. Father Rodrigues’s search for Ferreira, who has committed apostasy, is deliverd a bit too literally instead of being demonstrated through the mise-en-scene. The film reduces narrative to actions and dialogue, always giving ready-made answers instead of constructing questions.


The film combines Scorsese’s two previous encounters with religion: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, both of which have religion at the centre. Scorsese, a believer himself, adapts a novel written in 1966 about the seventeenth century to contemporary times. Christianity is presented not as an issue, with conversion being the grey area, but as something to be practised in the present. However, Scorsese, in a nod towards Barthes, emphasises the irrelevance of any symbol of a religion (the Holy Cross in this case) over faith itself, as if to point to what Barthes may have called an empty signifier.

The director suggests that the image of the crucifixion has no link to faith, which for Scorsese constitutes an interiority that cannot be manifested in a sign. Rodrigues, for Scorsese, is forever one of those many Japanese Christians who can never betray Christianity.

The looming issue of interiority is carefully communicated through the treatment of space. Shot largely on location in Asia, Scorsese represents indoor spaces in the vast expanse of nature, instead of forcing the audience to encounter the chaotic vastness of the exteriors. This is best denoted by the shot of the sea taken from the interior of the cave: curated nature to suit Hollywood’s narrative trickery.

Nature, in turn, is linked to light, so that watching the film itself produces a novel engagement with every passing frame. Through light, resulting in images worthy of an Oscar nomination for cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese attempts a description of Japaneseness, one that emphasises the dainichi or the Japanese Sun God, eventually denoted by a frontal shot of the sun.

Behind the scenes of Silence.

The problem with Scorsese’s film is that it has no grid on which to base its designed scenarios. Perhaps the veteran is attempting an Ozu-like sublime resonance in the repetitiousness of the shot-reverse shot sequences. However, his attempts at capturing light contradicts the Hollywood appropriated performances, making the film play out like an on-location stage production with elaborate steadycam movements. Scorsese seems to understand his own limitations: whereas he is a believer in a man-mad God, he is confronted by the vastness of divine nature before him as he shoots the film and engages the space of Endo’s motherland country, Japan.

The film makes suggestive use of colours, notably fire-bright orange, to represent light. The other notable colors are green (nature) and blue (the angry ocean). The collapse of symbols is denoted by the tracking shot into the Buddhist cremation in the finale , where the image tracks into pure light, removing all sense of theatricality. In the Buddhist coffin is apostatised Father Rodrigues holding the image of the cross: an empty signifier.

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