An Atheist’s Guide to Silence

On cinema and sacredness.
By  · Published on January 6th, 2017

If one had to pick a cinematic trend worthy of crucifixion, the faith-based film would surely be a prime candidate. Bible-thumping Jesus-fests like God’s Not Dead II and Miracles From Heaven have pandered their way to box office gold, sullying the good name of more earnest religious fare, from Carl Dreyer’s haunting The Passion of Joan of Arc to Mel Gibson’s flawed but affecting The Passion of the Christ. It is this evangelical fad, driven by the very same quarters of Middle America who shunned The Last Temptation of Christ, that Martin Scorsese hopes to capitalize on with Silence. Or, rather, his financiers hope to capitalize on it; Scorsese himself has been trying to make the film for nearly thirty years.

Silence follows two 17th Century Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrupe (Adam Driver), as they travel to Japan in search of their teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira, they learn through hearsay at the story’s opening, has renounced the faith under torture by Japanese inquisitors. The central tension of the film revolves around whether Rodrigues will himself apostatize ‐ symbolized by stepping on a bronze Christ image known as a fumie ‐ in order to save the Japanese Christians in his flock from torment and death.

Depending on your religious inclinations, this might sound like high drama or utter triviality. Some critics, for example, have bemoaned the film as “overly devout” and “more about abstractions than emotions.” Indeed, for the irreligious among you, refusing to step on the fumie while others suffer might seem downright monstrous. It’s a picture for Christ’s sake, you might be thinking. But that’s precisely the point. Scorsese’s aim in Silence is nothing less than a restoration of sacredness ‐ to pictures, yes, but also to our lives.

“We’re just completely saturated with images that don’t mean anything,” Scorsese lamented at a recent press conference. “Words certainly don’t mean anything anymore; they’re twisted and turned. So where’s the meaning? Where’s the truth?” Putting aside any theological claims, it’s difficult not to resonate with Scorsese’s diagnosis here. The modern world inundates us with such an abundance of stimuli ‐ visual, aural, ideological ‐ that merely processing our experience, let alone treasuring it, has become a chore. Art in general and cinema in particular have historically allowed us to mediate this experience, to trim it down, and thereby make sense of it. But as media becomes more pervasive, and consequently less intentional, its meaning-making function has diminished. For Scorsese, this amounts to an existential crisis: if meaning cannot be found in the cinema, where can it be found?

Ever conscious of his place in film history, Scorsese attempts in Silence to subvert this trend ‐ to “strip away everything,” and see what’s left. This means suppressing many of his trademark stylistic flourishes ‐ the camera scarcely moves, and the music is nearly nonexistent. Unlike the rip-roaring Wolf of Wall Street, Silence is paced patiently, even meditatively. Indeed, the very ethos of the film is that of meditation: be still, be quiet, and pay attention. Treat each moment as sacred and it will become so.

If this sounds a little too much like “God will save you if you just believe,” consider the following from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has studied the human capacity to experience life’s sacred dimension:

“The vertical dimension of divinity was so obvious to people in the Victorian age that even scientists referred to it…But as science, technology, and the industrial age progressed, the Western world became ‘desacralized.’…the modern West is the first culture in human history that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world.”

Seen in this way, sacredness is not an intrinsic property of objects but rather a quality of human experience. The religious tend to experience this quality in the context of their faith, but as Haidt points out, “even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature. We just don’t infer that God caused those feelings.” It’s often imagined that the perception sacredness depends upon a given belief, but merely engaging in certain practices is enough to awaken this sense. (Andrew Garfield, who spent thirty days performing the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises to prepare for his role, reported profound effects.)

For Scorsese, who once considered entering the priesthood, filmmaking is just such a practice. As A.O. Scott put it, “[Scorsese sees directing] as a priestly avocation, a set of spiritual exercises embedded in technical problems.” The very act of montage constitutes a kind of divine spark, endowing the meaningless image with meaning. Albert Camus, who took life’s meaninglessness as his central point of concern, once remarked that consciousness is like a film projector, but “the difference is that there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration.” For Scorsese, cinema provides the scenario.

Cinema, not God. Despite his Catholic preoccupations, Scorsese’s faith has more to do with works than beliefs. As Harvey Keitel puts it in Mean Streets, “you don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” This humility is part of what separates Silence from other faith-based pablum. Rodrigues ultimately steps on the fumie, thereby choosing compassion over blind dogma. Scorsese describes his own view similarly: “I don’t know if there’s redemption,” he told NY Times Magazine, “but there is such a thing as trying to get it right.”

Unlike monuments to human credulity like Heaven is for Real, Silence exhibits doubt at every turn. The film’s rigorously subjective camera forces us to endure Rodrigues’s trials and unanswered prayers. Tragic moments that cry out for music (as a kind of meaning-making release valve) are played in deafening silence. There is a reason the film is not called God’s Euphonious Voice. When Rodrigues has visions of Christ, they take the form of an El Greco painting ‐ a mere piece of iconography onto which he clings for want of a more substantial sign. Throughout the film, Rodrigues and Garrupe doubt whether their Japanese congregation even understands the doctrine they’re preaching. And as our very own Jacob Oller points out, the film doesn’t shy away from the problematic nature of the entire missionary project.

Scorsese is not an atheist, but neither is he an insufferable evangelical. His spiritual concerns, such as they are, are rooted in the decisions and intentions of human beings. They need not alienate even the most secular of filmgoers. The question Silence poses is how to be good, whether God shows up or not. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t).

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