“Scorsese is coming for all of the Oscars.” So proclaimed the digital magazine Paste, a regular haunt for the Christians-who-drink-craft-beer set, as the trailer for Silence was released last November. Turns out, Martin Scorsese’s labor of love will only be coming for one of the Oscars. It was rightfully nominated for stunning cinematography but otherwise snubbed. The Academy even left one Best Picture slot unused, as if to rub it in.
It seems Silence is the film that Hollywood wants to see but not hear. And beyond the hipsters, most Christians did not want to hear of it, either. Nor did most anyone else. The film grossed a paltry $7 million despite a famous director, a star-studded cast, solid reviews, and a not-insignificant $45 million production budget. In the end, Silence was too Christian for Hollywood and too Hollywood for Christians.
Perhaps that assessment is a bit harsh. Hacksaw Ridge, another film centered on a very religious character played by Andrew Garfield, got plenty of love from Oscar and audiences, as did the faith- and family-friendly Hidden Figures. But both of those films have heroes who are heroic throughout. Silence, the true-ish story of a real time of persecution in seventeenth-century Japan, highlights heroes on the periphery but centers its focus on some very broken men. While it asks good questions about the nature of faith and truth, it provides only enigmatic answers. The movie’s climax even suggests that there is such a thing as faithful apostasy, Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:33 notwithstanding: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father.” After such a betrayal, Scorsese then asks whether a long-hidden kernel of faith is enough to escape the flames. One leaves the theater with more clouds than clarity.
Still, most who have seen Silence describe it as worth seeing, I among them. Why have so few done so? Maybe the problem was a lingering wariness, stemming from The Last Temptation of Christ. Maybe the project came across as too Catholic for many evangelicals and not affirming enough for those who attend Mass. (Who wants to see another film about a falling priest?) Maybe it was the marketing. Silence followed the well worn path for a prestige picture, with a limited year-end release for New York and L.A. elites. Would a more direct appeal to skittish heartland audiences who do not regularly frequent the multiplex have worked better? Maybe it was the title. Though faithful to Shūsaku Endō’s novel, it does not exactly scream “a majestic film about the perseverance of persecuted Christians.” A name like Silence does not scream anything.
Whatever the reason, Silence will go down unrecognized by the Academy and in a sea of red, perhaps the biggest flop of Scorsese’s career. The film’s producer, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, said that the effort, decades in the making, was “Marty baring his soul.” Silence may well be Scorsese’s professional martyrdom, a faith-driven act of sacrifice that many in Hollywood are glad to see in the ground. (Enough with the God stuff, get back to the bankable gangsters.)
But the film will rise again on DVD and download. While its visual power will be diminished on a smaller screen, it remains worth seeing. In an age of ISIS brutality, its themes are sadly relevant today, and it opens a window on a period in church history of which too few are aware. It is not a perfect picture, but those who proclaim it a masterpiece have reason to do so. Its name will not be called late Sunday night, but sometimes silence is still golden.
John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School. He saw Silence in an all but empty American theater this January.