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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    Breaking Down the Ending Segment of “Goodfellas”

    There are many great scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). The club entrance scene is probably the most discussed and copied in a variety of places, including a spoof on Jon Stewart’s final Daily Show. But there is also a lot going on with Scorsese’s direction in the final segment following Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) on the day leading to his arrest. In a new video essay, Julian Palmer breaks down the details of those ending scenes.

    Palmer, Creative Director and Founder at 1848 Media, discusses Scorsese’s editing and use of techniques.  He explains, for example, how the director uses hand-held cameras to reflect Hill’s paranoia.

    Palmer does an excellent job of referencing other films, like The Godfather (1972).  And he even explains the significance of the shots of food.

    Check out his video essay, “Last Day of a Wiseguy.”

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “Just a Few Takes”: Ray Liotta Discusses Classic “Goodfellas” Scene

    Huffington Post recently interviewed actor Ray Liotta and brought up the classic tracking shot into the Copacabana. In the long shot director Martin Scorsese followed Liotta (playing Henry Hill) and actress Lorraine Bracco (playing Karen Friedman) as they enter and go through the nightclub to their seats.

    In the interview by Ricky Camilleri, Liotta talks about how smoothly everything went and his memories of making Goodfellas.

    Liotta, of course, is giving the actor’s perspective, so of course he did not see all of the work that went into making everything so perfect. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus has recounted how it took many days to set up the lighting, more days to shoot it, and more days to put together the edit.

    If the interview leaves you wanting to see the scene again. check it out below. As “Then He Kissed Me” by the Crystals plays in the background, the long shot reveals Hill opening up a new world to his girlfriend Friedman. It remains one of the great scenes in cinema history.

    For more of the Liotta interview head over to HuffPost Live. What is your favorite part of the famous Copa scene from Goodfellas? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Post-Trauma Life in “Margaret” (Missed Movies)

    How you react to Margaret (2011) may depend on whether or not you enjoy imperfect movies that are challenging and ambitious. I spent much of the movie wondering where it was going to go as it continuously surprised me. While at times the movie made me uncomfortable with all of its flawed characters, I ultimately realized that I will be thinking about this one for a long time.

    Margaret centers around Lisa Cohen, a teenager played by Anna Paquin, who witnesses and is indirectly partly responsible for a bus accident that kills a woman who dies in Lisa’s arms. Lisa is severely affected by the accident, beginning with her decision about whether or not she should tell the police that the bus driver was distracted and ran a red light. From there, the teen alternates between struggling with her decisions and acting out in various ways. Her parents are divorced, and her actress mother is distracted by a play and dating while her father is far away. Her teachers at school — including ones played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick — have their own flaws, as does everyone in the movie. Those flaws help make Margaret portray the messiness of real life.

    Margaret has a number of stars in non-starring roles. In addition to Damon and Broderick, Jean Reno plays the love interest of Lisa’s mother and Mark Ruffalo plays the bus driver. J. Smith-Cameron plays Lisa’s mother.

    The movie, directed by Ken Lonergan, was actually made in 2005 and scheduled for release in 2007 but it only finally made it to a limited number of theaters in 2011 and was released on DVD last year. A number of issues contributed to the long delay, including that Lonergan reportedly struggled with editing the movie as the studio wanted him to cut his nearly three-hour movie to under 150 minutes, leading to lawsuits. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker were called in to create an edit, and although Lonergan approved their edit, his longer version is available on the new Blu-ray/DVD release. I watched the edited version on HBO. This “short” 150-minute version had a number of long lingering shots that some may or may not like, but I am curious about the longer one. David Edelstein at NPR has written how he thought the short version was flawed but he loved the extended cut.

    Others have noted that what makes the 2005 shooting interesting is that it places the making of the film and the film’s setting nearer to 9/11. Not only do Lisa and her classmates debate terrorism, the movie touches on post 9/11 themes like blame, guilt, and how one act can touch so many people. Paquin, who played a young girl in 2002’s 25th Hour (one of the best movies that featured 9/11’s effects) and is in True Blood, does an excellent job.

    Paquin plays someone we completely empathize with at the beginning but who is an annoying teenager at times. But that is part of the point, as Lonergan captures how we feel things more passionately as teenagers before we become cynical adults. If you understand why someone acts the way they do, can you still empathize with them even when they are less than perfect? That is one of the questions of civilization, and Lonergan asks us to ask ourselves that question as he illustrates how humans fail to connect with each other.

    Conclusion? Not everyone will like Margaret. But if you are in the mood for a challenging movie raising moral, ethical, and human issues, you might enjoy this one. Or at least you will be thinking about it for a long time and looking up Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” about a young girl encountering death, to help you figure out why a movie named “Margaret” does not have anyone with that name.

    Other Reviews Because Why Should You Trust Me?: The split between critics (71%) and audience members (49%) on Rotten Tomatoes shows how viewers may be divided between loving and hating Margaret. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone gives Margaret three and half out of four stars, acknowledging its flaws while concluding it is a “film of rare beauty and shocking gravity.” By contrast, Amy Curtis at We Got This Covered calls Margaret “pointless” and disorganized.

    {Missed Movies is our continuing series on good films you might have missed because they did not receive the recognition they deserved when released.}

    What did you think of Margaret? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    When Bob Dylan’s Ship Comes In

    Dylan When the Ship Comes In

    When the Ship Comes In (live) – Bob Dylan (press play)

    During the summer of 1963, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were driving on a trip to perform together. During the trip, an incident occurred that would inspire one of Dylan’s great songs.

    A Hotel Stop

    On the road, Dylan and Baez were in ragged clothes when they stopped at a hotel for the night. At this point in their careers, Joan Baez was the more famous of the two nationally outside the folk community, although Dylan had recorded two albums and had his songs covered by several artists.

    The motel clerk recognized Baez and gave her a room, even though she was not wearing any shoes. But the clerk refused a room to Dylan because of his scraggly appearance. Baez was angry and stepped in on Dylan’s behalf, persuading the clerk to give a room to her unkempt companion.

    It must have been difficult for Dylan to face the rejection and then have to be saved by Baez, especially because he was just starting — or hoping to start — a relationship with her.

    When the Ship Comes In

    For someone with Dylan’s talents, though, the best revenge was his music. That night, in his hotel room, in his anger and humiliation, Bob Dylan sat down and began writing the following words:

    A song will lift
    As the mainsail shifts,
    And the boat drifts on to the shoreline;
    And the sun will respect
    Every face on the deck,
    The hour that the ship comes in.

    His new song, “When the Ship Comes In,” was a song of revolution that came out of a personal slight that evening. And Dylan was not in a forgiving mood.  He sang about the forthcoming change where chains will bust and fall to “be buried at the bottom of the ocean,” elevating his slight into something Biblical:

    Then they’ll raise their hands,
    Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands;
    But we’ll shout from the bow “your days are numbered,”
    And like Pharaoh’s tribe,
    They’ll be drowned in the tide;
    And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

    The March on Washington

    Not many weeks after the motel incident, Dylan and Baez performed “When the Ship Comes In” at the March on Washington in August of 1963. So the song born out of pique at a hotel clerk took stage alongside Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his “I Have a Dream” Speech.

    Thus, Dylan’s song framed MLK’s speech with the warning, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”


    Revolutions are often borne out of personal slights. But personal slights are often symbols of the system, so there is nothing wrong with such a genesis. One instigation for the American Revolution was a tax on tea, but the tax was symbolic of something deeper. The Occupy Wall Street movement was fueled partly by people fed up with a system that has slighted them individually. Similarly, one can look at recent protests around the world to see movements that started small and grew into something unfathomable.

    The year after Dylan wrote “When the Ship Comes In,” the song appeared on Dylan’s The Times They Are A-‘Changin’ (1964) album, his first album of all original songs. Some of the themes of “When the Ship Comes In” are echoed in the title song of the album: “There’s a battle outside ragin’./It’ll soon shake your windows/And rattle your walls.” Maybe the battle does not rage in the U.S. like it did in the 1960s, but it still continues here and around the world.

    And that’s the story behind the song.

    Bonus Source Information: In Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, Baez tells the story about the hotel and the “devastating” song, not Dylan. So he may have a different perspective on the night. In Keys to the Rain, Oliver Trager, who calls the Live Aid version above “botched,” notes that Dylan once explained that “When the Ship Comes In” was less about sitting down and writing a song than being a type of song “[t]hey’re just in you so they’ve got to come out.” A better live version of the song was recorded at Carnegie Hall on October 26, 1963, two months after the March on Washington performance. It is included on the soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese documentary on No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series Vol. 7).

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