The Unsatisfying Ending of Scorsese’s “Silence” That Is Still Perfect

Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) received some of the most mixed reviews of the director’s career.  Adam Graham of The Detroit News called it “a slog,” while Calvin Williams of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it Scorsese’s “most impassioned” film.  In the middle were reviews like the one from The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, calling the movie “strained.”

The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes shows even more of a divide between critics and regular viewers.  While the movie has a respectable 84% rating from critics, the audience member rating is much lower at 69%.  One of the reasons for the divide may be that audience members were disappointed by the ending.  [Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of Silence.]

I initially felt disappointment at the ending, but the movie stayed with me much longer than most recent movies.  Many decent films like this summer’s Spider Man: Homecoming (2017) provide enjoyment during your viewing.  And then you immediately stop thinking about the movie once it ends.  But Silence lingered in my consciousness.

The Story

Silence is based upon 1966 novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō.  Although the book is a novel, it is based on real-life persecution by Christians in Japan in the Seventeenth Century.  The story is loosely inspired by the lives of Cristóvão Ferreira (1580-1650) and Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara (1610-1685).

For decades, Martin Scorsese wanted to bring the book to the screen, finally achieving that goal in a film he wrote with Jay Cocks.  The movie stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds.

In the film, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garrupe (Driver) leave Portugal in the 1640s to go to Japan to seek their teacher Father Ferreira (Neeson).  Amidst word of persecution of Christians in Japan, they have heard that Father Ferreira has apostasized, i.e., forsaken his faith.

Thus begins their journey, which ultimately ends up focusing more on Father Rodrigues.  With him, we see horrible acts done by the Japanese to get Christians to reject their faith by trampling (stepping upon) religious images.

The film is enthralling, for its illustration of some of the horrors of torture, both physical and mental.  While much of the focus remains on Rodrigues, we are surprised by the intelligence of the Japanese characters trying to do what they think necessary to protect their country.  Thus, even while the film focuses on a personal journey of faith, the movie also raises questions about colonialism, with the white priests going to a foreign country to impose their beliefs.

Without spoiling more of the movie than necessary for this discussion, the movie raises questions about faith.  Does one maintain their faith if they believe they must surrender that faith to preserve the teachings of that faith?

Ultimately, we see some who have given up that faith to save other lives.  There is no flicker of hope, except for a final scene of one of the characters, years in the future, dying and being cremated.  At his cremation, hidden from the view of everyone, his hands hold a small cross that his wife put there (Scorsese added this scene, which was not in the book).

Why the Ending is Unsatisfying to Many of Us

We are not used to seeing movies featuring a main character who is so utterly defeated.  The American Biblical scholar Walter Wink wrote about how movies and TV shows follow a traditional trajectory to teach us to embrace violence. Generally, we see the “hero” beaten repeatedly to the point where we root for the hero to rise and use violence against the enemy.  When the hero does, we feel satisfaction in the Myth of Redemptive Violence. (For more on Wink’s argument, see our posts on redemptive violence in Westerns.)

Having been conditioned by movies about retribution, a viewer watching Silence and the horrors it portrays expects that one of the characters will fine a way to defeat his tormentors.  We expect a heroic act to solve the dilemma.  Instead, we only see a failed heroic act by another character.

So, we wait for something.  Even after the main character has apostasized, we wait for some resolution, at least an escape from a life without one’s core beliefs.  But it does not come.  We only get a flicker of rebellion after death, and that flicker is far from satisfying.

Why the Ending is Perfect

Yet, it is that unsatisfying ending that is perfect.  Had the story ended with a happy victory, we might forget the underlying questions the film asks.

Like the characters in the film, we are asked to struggle with the definition of faith in an unwinnable situation.  Is it better to be a martyr (or to make others become martyrs in your place) or to surrender?  It is like Star Trek‘s Kobayashi Maru no-win situation training exercise, but without a loophole for James T. Kirk to find.

Others have written more eloquently about the questions asked by the movie and novel.  For example, Amy Welborn in The Catholic World Report notes that the story “is not only [about] the struggle to come to an understanding of faith and ourselves, but what happens after that. How do we live?”

The movie’s spiritual advisor Reverend James Martin has explained, “This isn’t the fake spirituality of ‘If you believe in God, everything turns out great.’ This movie says you can believe in God but bad things might still happen. And then it asks, what do you do with that faith?”

So ultimately, it is in the unsatisfactory ending that the movie gives us the gift of questions to ponder.  If one of the main characters were a super hero who saved everyone and themselves, the movie would spend less time in our consciousness than the popcorn stays in our stomach.  So, we continue to ponder the questions Scorsese wants us to consider.  Why was God silent? What would I have done?  How do you make such choices?


Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Will you watch The Lego Movie? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Should You Hear the People Sing in “Les Misérables”? (Review)

    The play Les Misérables is one of the longest running Broadway productions of all-time as well as an international phenomena. So, for better or worse, the film Les Misérables (2012), directed by Tom Hooper, is always going to be compared to that legacy. While some of the singing in the new film may not live up to major productions of the play, it is a worthwhile addition to the Les Miz canon and a fine way to bring a great story and exciting music to a wider audience.

    In the interest of full disclosure, while I have not seen the play 957 times, I have seen it a few times and have owned the soundtrack from the original London production. So I went into the movie with certain expectations. If you have similar expectations, you may or may not be disappointed, depending on how flexible you are willing to be in what you want out of the movie.

    Hooper’s decision to film the actors singing their parts live instead of lip syncing studio recordings was bound to result in less than perfect singing. The two major roles played by Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) and Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert) are the least spectacular in their vocals, generally singing on key but with less-than-powerful voices. Some, including singer Adam Lambert, have been critical of the singing in the film.

    Yet, any decrease in quality in singing from stage to film is more than made up for in the emotional power of skilled actors playing the roles on screen in close up shots that you do not get on stage. Hugh Jackman may not get a Grammy nomination on his own, but he more than deserves the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and his Golden Globes win last night.

    Further, most of the other roles are played by excellent singers, including Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, whose mother was an understudy for the same role as Fantine in the first U.S. tour of the play, gives an outstanding singing performance, earning her a well-deserved Best Supporting Oscar nomination and a Golden Globes win even though she is only in a small part of the film. Hence, her vocal skills may be why her voice is the one featured in the trailer below on the song Susan Boyle helped make famous on Britain’s Got Talent.

    The actors in the important smaller roles help make the film. Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean on stage in London and New York, here plays the bishop. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide comic relief as the Thénardiers better than one could do on stage because this comedy generally works better with small details you cannot see in a play. Samantha Barks gives a moving performance as Eponine, as do many of the youngsters in the cast. In short, those who are fans of the play, therefore, most likely will also enjoy seeing the story on screen and in repeated DVD viewings.

    Those who have never seen the play who do not have certain expectations about the songs may like the film even more than those with heightened expectations. Of course, some people will refuse to see the movie because they “don’t like musicals.” But those who are open to the experience will be pleasantly surprised how a powerful story can be told entirely in song.

    The film, of course, is based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables, which is a long but terrific story about life, forgiveness, love, faith, and hope. The story focuses on a former prisoner haunted by the law and the past despite the fact that he is a changed man. The book, musical, and film all touch on timely themes including a sub-story about a fight for economic justice. The world would be a better place if every human being watched or read this story at least once every year. The book has been made into a non-singing film several times, including a 1998 version starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean.

    Even though the play premiered in its English language form in 1985, it took more than twenty-five years for the musical to make it into a film. Seeing what these actors and this director accomplished, it was worth the wait.

    Conclusion? If you are open to watching a musical, or even if you are not, you likely will be drawn in by the combination of a great story with memorable music. If you have seen the play before, check your expectations and memories at the ticket window and just relax and enjoy the ride.

    Other Reviews Because Why Should You Trust Me?
    Rotten Tomatoes has a 70% critics rating and an 84% audience rating for Les Misérables, somewhat reflecting the fact that the play was always more popular with audiences than with critics. Roger Moore at Movie Nation notes the underlying economic themes of the film and says that the movie is one of the best of the year. Bill Cashill at Popdose writes, “aside from some budget-conscious CGI and the inherent, inescapable staginess of some of the material,” there was little that he did not like about the movie. By contrast, David Jenkins at Little White Lies claims the movie is “nut-smashingly awful.” Meanwhile, Forbes Magazine discusses the political and ethical themes about law and grace in the story. Finally, if you would like to see the stars of the stage perform the songs from Les Misérables, the entire Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Concert is available on YouTube. Note, though, it is a concert and not a full-blown stage production.

    What are or were your expectations of the film version of Les Misérables? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    A Crazy Violent Act and A Very Good Film (“The Dark Knight Rises”)

    The movie theater where I watched The Dark Knight Rises (2012) had this poster in the coming attractions display, warning the audience for Step Up Revolution (2012). While the dance movie has garnered some positive reviews, some are concerned that a scene with the dancers wearing gas masks amid a cloudy haze might evoke thoughts of the shootings at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. My theater, however, had no similar warnings for The Dark Knight Rises, a film that is full of scenes of terrorism, violence, and killings. I guess it is all about expectations, and one going to a Batman movie in 2012 should expect levels of violence that far exceed the Batman television show of the 1960s.

    I have written about how movies often follow a familiar pattern of endorsing redemptive violence, showing a hero who is repeatedly beaten down so that we want nothing more than for the hero to rise up and use violence against his oppressor or oppressors. And The Dark Knight Rises follows this typical movie pattern, where we accept that the solution to the problems will be more violence. Director Christopher Nolan does present these themes with more complexity than other movies, as we see Bruce Wayne tiring of the Batman job while Batman still declines to use guns.

    But I do not think that the movie violence itself determines whether a film is good or bad, only that we film-goers should be knowledgeable about the way our entertainment is used. So, that said, The Dark Knight Rises is a well-told story that ties up and concludes one of the best trilogies in movie history. So do not let the press about one crazy act in Colorado stop you from going to see this film.

    The film picks up years after The Dark Knight (2008) left off, and it also ties in much of the story of the first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins (2005). Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a recluse and Batman has disappeared. A powerful new villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), appears, and we meet Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). We learn of a connection between Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) from Batman Begins. And, well, if you have not seen the previous two films — or it has been awhile — you might want to rent them before seeing The Dark Knight Rises as the new film assumes a certain level of familiarity with the earlier films.

    The acting is excellent, as Bale may give his best performance as Wayne/Batman, showing layers of character in Bruce Wayne and growling less as Batman than in the previous film. While Bane wears a mask so you cannot see his mouth, Nolan makes sure you can understand what he is saying. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Alfred (Michael Caine), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), return as much of the heart of the trilogy. The film also introduces new key characters, including young police officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

    The movie has several layers that may leave one wondering about the message of the film. Bane and other villains talk about the oppressed rising up against the rich class, which some have noted evokes recent protests by Occupy Wall Street. But as the bad guys advocate chaos and destruction, does that mean Nolan is against them? Or is he just incorporating the reference without taking sides? And is Nolan supporting the strict Harvey Dent law that evokes recent terrorism laws passed in the U.S.? The answers are not clear, but good movies give one something to think about after the lights come on, and The Dark Knight Rises is worth further thought and discussion.

    Although the film takes 2 hours and 44 minutes to reach its conclusion, it did not seem long to me, as it tied together the various stories (although there is no reference to The Joker out of respect to the late Heath Ledger). About half-way through the film someone said something that made me realize how the film would end, but I was still entertained as the movie took some twists and turns to get there.

    Conclusion: How does the film compare to its predecessors? The Dark Knight had the great performance of Heath Ledger, so I suspect most people will find that the second film is their favorite of the series. I also liked that The Dark Knight avoided the typical villain-as-brilliant-genius story and went for a villain-as-mentally-ill story, which as we see from the Colorado shooting is probably more realistic. But for the excellent screenplay asking more complex questions than a typical superhero film, a few surprises, and the way Nolan wrapped it all up, I would make a case for The Dark Knight Rises as one of the best final films in any trilogy.

    I have already posted the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, so check out a trailer for the entire trilogy, which reminds you of what Nolan and company have accomplished with the films.

    Other Reviews Because Why Should You Listen to Me?: Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 87% rating from critics and a 92% rating from audience members. The movie has received some mixed reviews, perhaps partly due to high expectations. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker says The Dark Knight Rises is “is murky, interminable, confused, and dropsical with self-importance,” although he finds the film redeemed by Anne Hathaway’s performance. The Daily Mail calls the movie “a pretentious mess.” Bob Garver at the Herald-Mail, by contrast, says the movie is “satisfying enough to be considered a worthy finale” to the trilogy. Lisa Kennedy at The Denver Post liked the movie even more, saying “the film is a feat of painstakingly crafted closure.” Omer M. Mozaffar wrote a very good essay about the trilogy on the Chicago Sun-Times website, but be warned that it contains spoilers if you have not seen the film. Finally, my reference in this post to “redemptive violence” in films, cartoons, etc. comes from scholar and theologian Walter Wink, who passed away this May. Although he wrote books on the topic, one of his short essays on redemptive violence is at Ekklesia. RIP.

    What did you think of “The Dark Knight Rises”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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