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Film Review: Ecce Homo - Martin Scorsese’s 'Silence'

There’s a decisive moment towards the end of Martin Scorsese’s latest film Silence, when a Catholic priest, Father Rodrigues, is urged by his Japanese inquisitors to renounce his faith, by stepping on a 'fumi-e', a crude wooden image of Christ. Rodrigues’ - and the viewer’s - anguish is heightened by the screams of tortured Christians that can be heard in the background. "Renounce Christ" say his tormentors, "and they will be free: it is only because of your selfishness that they suffer".

What Rodrigues does next determines not only his own fate, but that of his fellow captives. Scorsese treats the priest’s depth of faith - and the attendant moral gravity of his dilemma - with complete seriousness, and, in so doing, enables the viewer, whatever their personal belief, to enter fully into Rodrigues’ predicament. Is it right, we ask ourselves, to renounce that which one holds most dear, in order to save others? Or should we hold fast to that which we consider sacred, no matter the cost?

Images of faith and doubt, depictions of doomed quests for self-discovery and spiritual fulfilment, and sudden reversals of fortune, have provided the substance of Scorsese’s films from Mean Streets onwards. Watching Andrew Garfield’s tortured Rodrigues, one thinks of Jake LaMotta in GoodFellas, as he makes his descent from heavyweight champion to punch-drunk deadbeat, and of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, whose obsessive determination to "wipe the scum off the streets" of New York turns him first into a criminal, then into a hero. In a recent interview with Father James Martin, editor of the Jesuit Review, Scorsese described Silence as a continuation of the spiritual journey that he has pursued throughout his body of work. If Scorsese’s characters oscillate between hope and despair, perplexity and enlightenment, it is because the director himself  has also traced this path, a path that ‘never ends’.

Watching this pivotal scene in Silence, I was put in mind of a recent sermon by the Dean of York Minster, Vivian Faull, in which she explored two different ways of thinking about time, 'chronos' and 'kairos'. These concepts derive from Greek philosophy, and, therefore also heavily influenced the early fathers of the Christian church.  'Chronos', she explained, is simply time as it unfolds in a straight line; what we might think of as clock time. 'Kairos', on the other hand, describes those decisive moments in our lives at which something of great importance is decided. This could be something of superficial significance, like buying a house or changing job. But more often a 'kairos' moment is one at which some kind of new spiritual realisation is achieved, where God’s purpose can be seen to be directly at work, albeit often in a veiled manner. So, Faull argued, when the author of Ecclesiastes writes:

         "There is a time to live and a time to die…"

he is commenting on the way in which 'kairos' moments give shape and narrative to our lives.

I shan’t provide any clues to the outcome of Rodrigues’ own 'kairos' moment, except to say that Rodrigues’ actions simply present us with the question common to all of Scorsese’s greatest films: are we looking at a strong man or a weakling, a hero or an outcast? It is no coincidence that this is also one of the central questions of the Christian faith. For Scorsese is, at heart, a profoundly religious artist, albeit an unconventional one, like Palestrina with a switchblade, or Masaccio with a boxing-glove.

Reviewer’s note: Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese) is rated Cert 15 for strong, bloody violence. It’s frequent scenes of torture and execution may be disturbing for some viewers.

James Cave