The single biggest influence on Joel and Ethan Coen is probably the screwball comedy that flourished in Hollywood during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ironically, their least successful films (e.g., The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty) are the ones where they attempt to emulate the conventions of that beloved subgenre the closest. The brothers’ most fruitful work arises when the influence is more indirect — when the rat-a-tat patter of those glorious war-between-the-sexes love stories is crossbred with other genres entirely (e.g., the neo-noir/neo-western of The Big Lebowski or the musical biopic of Inside Llewyn Davis). I would argue that a similar dynamic is at work with Martin Scorsese and religion: Quintessential Catholic themes of temptation, sin, guilt and redemption have permeated his filmography since Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967. Yet confronting religious subjects directly and focusing on the lives of “saints” (as in The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and, now, Silence) yields less interesting results than when he has examined those same themes through the lives of the “sinners” in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull or The Wolf of Wall Street. As Harvey Keitel’s Charlie says in Mean Streets, in what are arguably the most important lines that Scorsese ever directed, “You don’t pay for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”
Silence is, of course, a film that every cinephile should see on the big screen at the earliest opportunity. Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living filmmakers and probably only he would have been capable of getting a big-budget art film like this financed by a major studio like Paramount. Yet, in spite of the fact that this decades-in-the-making adaptation of Shûsaku Endô’s novel about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan is obviously a “passion project,” I cannot also help but feel that Scorsese is a fundamental mismatch with the material: he has always been an Expressionist at heart — a bold stylist with an infectious, punch-drunk love of voluptuous images, dazzling camera movements and brisk cutting — when the subject matter here clearly cries out for the austerity of a Carl Dreyer or the Tarkovsky of Andrei Rublev. Scorsese’s mise-en-scene is exquisite as always, particularly in a scene that nods to the famous “phantom boat” sequence in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, and many passages towards the end are deeply moving (especially after one has adjusted to the miscast Andrew Garfield’s now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t Portuguese accent). Yet the abiding impression is one of an opportunity lost: the “reveal” in the film’s impressive final image is achieved through what appears to be an operatic, typically Scorsesean camera movement combined with CGI. But a subtler, more offhand approach to this reveal would have been devastating — rather than merely impressive.
Silence opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 6.