Monday, January 16, 2017

Reserved Seating with Rob and Adam: Silence

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo that puts your faith…back in film criticism.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske. I’ll just get it out of the way: Silence is great.

Rob: Based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō, it’s the story of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who smuggle their way into 17th century Japan in order to rescue their teacher (Liam Neeson)…

Adam: “Mentor” is more appropriate.

Rob: …who disappeared some years before. They discover a culture in which Catholics face daily and life-threatening persecution and find that their own faith is not as firm as they once believed.

Adam: In this clip, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are in hiding, unable to go out in daylight for fear of being discovered by Japan’s military dictators, who are apprehending all priests and their Christian followers. But the two priests grow restless and frustrated as they are unable to complete their mission of locating their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira. Finally, they decide to go out into the open, if only briefly. This scene is a fine example of the sense of danger and fear that fills Scorsese’s latest.

Rob: It’s a frightening scene that’s representative of the film’s first act, which is encased almost entirely in fog and obscured by brush. It’s perfect symbolism that serves a number of functions.

Adam: I’m glad you mentioned that. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto perfectly captures the time and place that is later described in the film as a swamp where nothing can grow. It’s a country with an enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots, with religion being just as much political and socioeconomic as it is about the tenets of Christianity or Buddhism. This movie made me think about religion more than I have in a very long time. It’s not just affirmation for a devout audience, but rather challenges their devotion on a human and philosophical level. Is your faith worth your own suffering? And more significantly, is it important enough for you to allow others suffer for it?

Rob: As both a lapsed Catholic and a huge Scorsese fan, I was completely at home in the world he was building here. Catholicism is so much about demonstrating your devotion through suffering, more or less apologizing for even having been born.

Adam: I’m Jewish and I’ve never done any of that.

Rob: Are you done? I’m talking.

Adam: Latkes with sour cream, never applesauce.
Rob: Silence challenges us to consider how much our faith is really rooted in ego, and how willing we are to put our lives in the hands of an intangible force that may not even be listening. What happens when we lose the moral superiority that our doctrine has endowed us with?

Adam: You’re 100 percent right about the topic of ego. I found it fascinating how both the Buddhists and the Christians thought they were the ones who were right, not surprisingly, but when the priests begin using words like they have the “truth” then you open up a whole other can of worms. While not sympathetic, necessarily (they do persecute the Christians with violence), the Japanese inquisitors do have a point: who are you to tell me I’m wrong? Why are you trying to take away my country’s identity? The Christian priests in the movie will listen to this dialogue but aren’t really hearing it. They are so steadfast in their belief that they are unbending, and so are the Japanese. Unintended or not, it struck me as a statement on today’s climate (more political than religion), where each side is so firmly in their position that trying to convince the other side is like talking to a brick wall.

Rob: Including Garfield’s character, Rodrigues. I loved that our protagonist was a giant dickhead half the time, that he was so committed to his ideology for the sake of ideology, not even evidence or real “truth.” There’s a moment when he tells one of the peasants that his faith gives him strength. The peasant says (I’m paraphrasing), “I have love. Is that the same as faith?” Rodrigues says, “Yes, I think it is.” It’s so much about how subjective and incidental our own experiences with religion are, which is ironic considering how hard and fast the ideology tends to be. Life and death are played with in such absolute terms, and the religious oppression at work is so heartbreaking that Rodrigues is constantly reassessing his commitment to his core beliefs.

Adam: It really is heartbreaking. By the end instead of thinking “why would Rodrigues ever suffer and makes others suffer as long as he does?” the film gives us a moment that makes it absolutely clear why this was such an ordeal for him. I wish I could talk more about it because it’s a masterstroke type of moment that the movie builds to.

Rob: I won’t spoil it either, but it’s the only acceptable payoff for nearly three hours of this kind of emotional torment. Like you said, the title became more and more resonant as things went on. Speaking of which, did you feel the length at all? I found that the film’s structure made it so that I didn’t. It has three very distinct acts, and I think that helped me avoid complacency.

Adam: It did feel long, but not in a negative way. A movie like this should be long and draining. I don’t think having this movie be two hours would have been enough. In, say, The Passion of the Christ, the abuse is physical and for the audience emotional, we get that quickly, but here it’s much more a psychological suffering and that takes time to draw out. I love movies like Silence, where you feel like you’ve been through an experience of great strain. If any cuts could be made, I think they would be of Adam Driver’s character.

Rob: That or give him more screen time and make it more of a two-hander for the first hour and a half or so. Then again, maybe Scorsese knew that the character was just there to plant the seed of doubt? It’s hard to tell. Maybe he felt that the suffering he was depicting was so private and personal that some kind of Buddy Priest adventure wouldn’t resonate as much. Too much expository dialogue also might have spoiled the visceral experience of the film. None of this is meant to knock Andrew Garfield at all, by the way. He’s spectacular.

Adam: I’m right there with you. Garfield is a very emotive actor and I think that works so much to the benefit of Silence because you “get it” so much more than you would with a more stoic presence like, say, Liam Neeson’s character.

Rob: I love that he plays Rodrigues equal parts determined and totally vulnerable. I haven’t seen Hacksaw Ridge, but I hear he’s having a good year so far.

Adam: I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge. The public wants us to see these pictures and share our thoughts. It’s decent.

Rob: As for the running time, the experience was worth a bit of back pain. Like you said, we should suffer a bit as an audience. Besides, Scorsese’s constantly giving us these little benchmarks to keep the drama ebbing and flowing. Like the “apostatize” sequences, when the Christians-in-hiding are told to step on the image of Christ. It starts as this lark and then gradually builds to the defining moment in the film. You can’t sell that in ninety minutes, but it’s totally cathartic after a long ordeal.
Adam: The character of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) was another element that really impressed me. He represented, I think, many people who claim to be religious who are really just using religion as a way to absolve their pervasive weakness of character or indiscretion. I found his arc and that character’s relationship with Garfield’s character to be fascinating and complex.

Rob: He’s the best! My audience laughed this desperate, agonized laugh every time he showed up to atone for a whole new set of sins. He definitely, to me, represented the kind of religious zealot who cherry picks the rules and regulations of their faith as they see fit. He’s gaming the system, taking advantage of its loopholes. Rodrigues’ continued frustration with him was a fantastic way to illustrate his own internal struggle, too. How the hell does this guy keep getting away with it? Why do I keep forgiving him? Is this really the human race I’ve been tasked with saving?

Adam: So a big Mark Ahn for me on Silence.

Rob: Totally. Watching Silence is basically a rite of passage -- it’s both spiritually enlightening and existentially miserable. Since I hate myself, it’s a big Mark Ahn for me. Can we just talk for a second about how Martin Scorsese is still balls-deep into excellent filmmaking while many of his peers are asleep on couches somewhere?

Adam: We’re running long.

Rob: Oh, so you can drone on about politics, but I have to cut to the chase?

Adam: On next week’s show Rob & I will be discussing Live By Night, the new gangster movie from Ben Affleck where he has to shoot a bunch of hoods and decide who he’d rather sleep with — Sienna Miller or Zoe Saldana, a sacrifice almost worse than in Silence.

Rob: Truly, we should be in awe. (Saldana, by the way.)

Adam: I’d like to meet them both first and see if my desire is reciprocated.

Rob: Oh cool, you’re high-roading me? I opened up to you, and you punished me for it.

Adam: Until next time…

Rob: Dick.

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. I, too, thought Silence was great. Another podcast I occasionally listen to it and they thought that there was nothing complicated about it (which is why I only listen occasionally). It's not really asking if God is real or not. It's exploring the difference between that reality, if you will, and the reality of life, the difference between faith and dogma, and Jesus' words beyond "go ye therefore...". I can't really get into it without spoilers, but I think the film has a lot on its mind and it handles it eloquently.

    As for Kichijiro, I wouldn't say he's cherry picking or anything like that. I think that he is much more like Peter, who, when faced with a threat to his life, denies in an act of self-preservation. In other words, he's a human being following his human impulses. He knows it's wrong afterwards (and perhaps even in the moment), but it doesn't mean he's gaming the system. We see in Rodrigues (Garfield) that tendency to see himself as Jesus, and that's an impossible standard. In fact, Jesus would probably have said that he died for those like Kichijiro more than any other person in the film. He's the wretch--the one who needs it the most--which is why I feel his character, and Rodrigues' reactions to him, are critical to the film's success.

    1. I agree. I think what I meant (but could have articulated less cynically) was that it's human nature to subscribe to a principle when it empowers us, but to doubt it when it threatens us. It's that wiggle room that separates him from Rodrigues and creates their great dynamic.

  2. I'm glad you guys tackled this movie. I still haven't seen it so can't contribute but look forward to further DiCristino/Riske joints about all kinds of different flicks.

    I wasn't raised religiously in any organized way, if that makes sense, but am fascinated with theological questions as they really are just human questions.

    Do you two think the movie holds as much for everyone or is it kind of an inside baseball movie?

    1. Like you said, these are human questions. I think the film plays regardless of your belief structure.

  3. Apparently this movie is just not for me. I saw Silence with my Jewish wife, not a Scorsese fan, and a Jewish friend of ours, a big Scorsese fan, and we all walked away disappointed. Maybe it was the lack of a connection to Catholicism that is to blame.

    Either way, the acting was excellent and the scenery and cinematography was striking so perhaps it was just the story that fell flat for us. I think what was frustrating is that there was a chance here to explore the relationship between colonialism, religion, conversion, and culture clashing but that seemed to have been all sacrificed at the alter of martyrdom. The Japanese were clearly framed as the bad guys in this movie and while that's arguably realistic it's hard to ignore the fact that at the same time the Spanish Inquisition was in full form.

    Some of the best scenes I thought were the conversations between the priests and the inquisitor, or the apostate priest at the end, and I wish there was a lot more of that.

    1. I think for me what I found the most fascinating (based on my not very religious Jewish background) was that this movie helped me understand the emotional element of devout Christianity better than most other representations in movies.

    2. That's a fair point as to a non-Christian I'm sure it can look very confusing. My parents raised me as a Presbyterian so I had some experience of it but since becoming less religious stuff like that just doesn't appeal to me much anymore.

      Again there were parts of the movie I really liked but the path it took at the climax of the film was just something that I didn't really appreciate.

    3. I wish I could have gone to the screening at the Music Box (the cinema chapel, the movie mecca) that featured a conversation with a bishop afterwards. I wonder if devout Catholics or other evangelicals would even like this movie?

      But to your point about the Japanese being the bad guys, I still don't think it's that simple. I walked out of the theater thinking it was relatively cut and dry, but the farther away I've gotten from my viewing, the more complicated I think it is. For example, you think the conversations between Inoue and Rodrigues are the best parts, and I tend to agree. But it is in those parts most specifically we hear a compelling and understandable argument about why they're doing it. It makes sense and what was seen as treachery before might now be interpreted--quite easily--as defense. I think it addresses a lot of the issues you bring up, but I don't think it explicitly provides answers, or, perhaps, doesn't answer them at all. Like the core question of Rodrigues' personal journey, I don't think there are any easy or definite answers.

    4. The Japanese were in no way the bad guys. Especially considering that at this time, and for hundreds of years before, Christians were putting innocent people to the stake for being "witches." Ironically enough, when it comes to religion (and politics), morality is typically thrown to the wind. It all depends on which side your on...

  4. Wow, now I'm really looking forward to seeing This (although a new joint from Scorsese, always excited).

    Will this upsurp my favorite movie about Jesuit priests, The Mission?

  5. This is the best. Gonna be revisiting this conversation. May I even suggest make a filmed version like At the Movies! I know that's more work but hey I can dream

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I'm not ruling it out for later. Rob and I are still working out the format and we may add to it later.

  6. I quite enjoyed this piece... the kind of funny yet in-depth discussion you rarely find outside of F!-world. Bravo!