Arts and Culture

Scorsese’s ‘Silence’: Is It a Masterpiece?

Second in a series

LOOKING FORWARD to the screening of “Silence,” the first film of this fall’s Friday Film Festival at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, I have been reflecting on the nature of art and on what makes a work of art a masterpiece.

I know very little about contemporary painting. When I visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), I need a guide. Though I am interested in contemporary painting, without a guide, I am lost. Not so with contemporary film.

Looking back on my youth and my involvement in film festivals, I realize that I have viewed thousands of films. When I read contemporary film criticism, I am not intimidated. I feel free to disagree with critics, even those whom I greatly admire, because of my involvement with film for most of my life and with serious film since the time I began teaching philosophy many years ago.

I have read several essays about Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” The best review was Jason Chang’s in The Los Angeles Times on Jan. 18 of this year. Commenting on Shisaku Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s film adaptation, he writes the following:

“In embracing the irreducible simplicity of Endo’s language and slowing his own narrative rhythms accordingly, Scorsese has conjured a portrait of unbearable suffering that is also a work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.

“The searing honesty of the director’s approach demands a no less candid spirit on the part of this critic and fellow believer: Endo’s novel wrecked me when I read it three years ago, for both its consolation and its challenge. It struck me then as both a wrenching affirmation of a savior’s unfathomable grace and a thorough dismantling of everything that Christianity has often aligned itself with across the centuries; the arrogant pursuit of its own power and authority, and a willingness to do harm in the name of one who stood for unconditional mercy….

“The possible meanings of Endo’s title are infinite and hardly limited to the historical moment that so gripped his imagination. Is God’s silence a test, or an admission of His nonexistence? What about the problem of our own silence, especially when it makes us complicit in someone else’s suffering? The dissonant closing scenes advance a still more provocative inquiry: Could silence, far from being an act of cowardice, in fact constitute the truest, most necessary expression of faith?

“Scorsese summons every last ounce of conviction to question the very nature of conviction itself-and in the process, a movie that never insists on our faith becomes all but impossible not to believe in.”

In judging any work of art, I rely on Jacques Maritain’s philosophy of art. There are two key components that go into any work of art according to the great Thomistic philosopher. Maritain calls one the creative intuition, and the other the material with which the artist is working. I believe many of us have intuitions into reality, but our intuitions may not be creative. They may not drive us to try to express them in a work of art. Apparently, the artist is driven to get his or her intuition into some material work.

However, in order to do that, the artist must have some skill with matter, for example with oil and canvas, or with stone, or with musical notes, or with staging, or with a camera, etc. Perhaps there are artists that have great intuitions but no skill with matter. Obviously, because of their lack of skill, no great work is produced and so we will never know whether they have profound intuitions. Are there artists who have great skill but have nothing to “say”? I believe there are. Think of all the poor films that you have seen.

Of course film is created by many artists as anyone who reads the credits at the end of a film will realize. If we are going to attribute a film to one artist, I think it has to be the director. He or she is in charge of everything and has to weave everything together – the screenplay, acting, music, costumes, scenery and especially the camerawork – into an integral work. If the director is also the author of the screenplay, then his or her stamp on the work may be even more obvious.

Scorsese co-authored the screenplay for “Silence” with Jay Cocks. It may be the most personal film ever created by an American director.

I don’t know if there is anyone who has more skill than Scorsese with the material components that go into the creation of a film. For approximately the last 40 years I have admired Scorsese’s exceptional talent with those material components, and during that time span, I have enjoyed several very good Scorsese films. But during those years I have been waiting and hoping for a Scorsese masterpiece. It has arrived.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

Related: Catholic Novel Series Launches with Discussion of “Silence”