by Matthew Waldron
Between the two productions are 18 years, but Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Silence (2016) still resonate as if created for a double-bill as equally complex examples of the full spectrum cinema can produce regarding faith. FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a practicing Catholic. I attend mass at a Jesuit parish and even last Spring took communion from Father James Martin who served as the Jesuit-adviser for Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver in preparation for their roles as Portuguese Jesuits in Silence. Accordingly, its (agonizingly delayed) release this past winter ended up one of the few genuinely transcendent experiences I’ve felt watching a film for the first time - not since Saving Private Ryan had I been so irresistibly transported by a film to a place I did not want to arrive at. And as I left the theater I struggled to balance the sincere joy I felt having just finished another Scorsese film with the existential, spiritual uncertainty Silence challenges every viewer to inevitably confront.
This is as opposed to the way I’ve felt every time after watching The Last Temptation of Christ - ecstatic invigoration, basking in a cinema-induced affirmation of life. If the two films together were to represent a broad, faith-based cinematic-spectrum The Last Temptation would sit squarely at the end denoting “God’s-point-of-view.” Jesus raises Lazarus. He cures the blind. Even Doubting Thomas is left slack-jawed as Our Lord reaches into His chest and literally rips out His own heart. Throughout The Last Temptation the message is clear: within this film God is real, this is His Son, and He is performing miracles. Confoundingly, this lack of ambiguity, along with what is for most of the film a rather spot-on adaptation of the Gospels, wasn’t enough for the fundamentalists of the world. Hardly any proved capable of resisting the temptation to boycott en masse, even tossing red paint onto movie screens. At one of the pinnacles of his career, after 15 years of struggle to finally get a dream project on celluloid, Scorsese ultimately (albeit to Paul Schrader’s mild amusement) found himself having to go into hiding, if only for a short time.
Fundamentalists (of all ideologies) clearly sometimes just need to fight. What these particular fundamentalists could never understand wouldn’t (because they like the fight too much…?) was The Last Temptation never stood as a threat to the Catholic Church because it was never meant to be. My personal belief is it stands as the most sincerely expressed evocation of faith ever put to film (with The Exorcist being a close second, despite itself, but that’s an essay for another time). No argument - it’s unsettling. Once “the last temptation” sequence starts, brilliant as it is, I still feel at times, even after seven or eight viewings, like I’m watching something I shouldn’t. Like I’ll be in trouble if I’m caught. And in the end that may be it’s most significant achievement: The Last Temptation, in form and content, proves itself as challenging as faith itself.
No less challenging in its navigation of faith Silence addresses it from the opposite side of this spectrum; if The Last Temptation is “God’s” then Silence is unquestionably “Man’s-point-of-view.” Satanic as The Last Temptation may skew late in the picture, spoiler alert: “the good guys” still win. In Silence this is a moot point as there’s no way of knowing whether “the good guys” even exist.
With palpable solemnity Silence dutifully examines the inexorably intertwined relationship between faith and doubt, what Catholics refer to during mass (ironically, considering how many of them criticized it) as “the mystery of faith.” A deep well of doubt and uncertainty pervades nearly every frame.
In step with this firmly rooted skepticism any time “the supernatural” seems to occur during Silence ample room is left for explanations all too corporeal. When Garfield’s Father Rodriguez “sees” the “face of Jesus” in a pool of water it could be the face of His Messiah miraculously staring back at him...or it could be just a delusion brought on by dehydration and a concussion.
The bird flying by could be, as Rodriguez surmises, “God’s sign.” Or it could be...just a bird.
Interestingly Scorsese cast the same actor, Ciaran Hinds, to play both Rodriguez’s superior Jesuit back in Portugal (Father Valignano) as well as “the voice of Jesus” Rodriguez allegedly “hears” multiple times later in the film, particularly just before apostatizing, leaving room for all kinds of guilt-ridden, mentor-centric subtext and interpretations. In contrast, during The Last Temptation so many instances of Jesus performing indisputable miracles happen onscreen it practically qualifies as a superhero film.
This sincerity should matter, but tragically to the Catholic Church, which has done nothing since its release but wholly reject, if not blatantly persecute The Last Temptation, it clearly means nothing. Taking into consideration tripe like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and its mystifyingly enduring broadcast-television-popularity, appreciation of true sincerity often seems as absent as Moses’ parents. DeMille, a Barnum and Bailey-style sensationalist to the end, astonishingly even remarked during pre-production of his (otherwise not bad…) 1927-film version of The King of Kings: “...their idea of the life of Jesus is going to be formed by what we give them.”
Unfortunately this all likely does come down to one arguably petty, admittedly problematic issue: blasphemy. And though only certain, very brief, moments during The Last Temptation likely fit that definition, and then only in a strictly dictionary-sense, what really should matter in this context, besides sincerity, is intent. And nowhere does evidence exist that Martin Scorsese’s intent was malicious. Contrary to what the hysterics shriek, despite every gallon of paint, The Last Temptation is no treasonous attempt to re-write the Gospels. It remains more than anything a purely artistic-fiction which, within a Gospel-context, may veer slightly off the track at times, but never leaves them completely.
Still, the stink of suspicion remains, and in all likelihood no matter how much I’m sure Saint Peter would enjoy the show (along with Victor Argo’s portrayal of him), The Last Temptation will almost certainly never enjoy the honor of a screening in his Square. Months before release Silence, despite its deep well of doubt, was actually invited to be screened for a large group of Jesuits at the Vatican. The irony was likely lost on many in attendance how Scorsese’s arguably-most-atheist-friendly film was being screened where his undoubtedly most-faith-affirming film will almost certainly never be. I’m desperate to believe - I have faith - this is progress, regardless.
A year-and-a-half ago I had a remarkable conversation with a Jesuit here in Philadelphia, Father Dan Ruff. Father Ruff knew cinema was important to me and lent me a film by French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand, Jesus of Montreal. It’s innovative. More than kind of brilliant. And likely, for the same reasons as The Last Temptation, will never be shown at The Vatican. Ever. Still this insight into Father Ruff’s rather sophisticated aesthetic taste, as well as his tolerance, gave me courage upon graciously returning it to mention my admiration for The Last Temptation. As cool and progressive as I knew Father Ruff to be I still clumsily stuttered with trepidation as I lamented, to this ordained priest, that such a beautiful film should continue to be left woefully under-appreciated by The Powers That Be within The Church.
Father Ruff looked off, shrugged, and to my eternal esteem, agreed: “It’s a good film…”
If it’s without question no one with any standards has really much to admire about fundamentalists or philistines we can at least appreciate, or more importantly hope to even learn from, the dilemma they present: faith is as tricky within the confines of a movie theater as it is within the confessional (which This Sinner is more than well aware…). At their best though, each stripped of their worst dogma, they reveal so much more in common than not.
Indeed though, only at their best.