Silence

I can’t remember when I first apostatised, if it’s still correct to use that term once you realise you probably didn’t believe any of it to begin with.

Until my mid teens, I was a sincerely practicing Catholic – Mass every weekend plus every holy day of obligation, elaborate methods of self-flagellation every Lent, constant fear of eternal hellfire as punishment for every unprovoked tumescence. Then, while I still lived with my parents, I was a Catholic out of duty, mainly to avoid any awkward questions, keeping up appearances by continuing to attend Mass with them whilst appeasing my own diverging beliefs through less overtly religious Lenten vows – donating to overseas aid work, or taking up vegetarianism, the latter of which extended beyond its planned six weeks and sticks to this day.

Once I moved out, I dropped the pretense, although it’s something I’ve never addressed with my parents, who, for all I know, still think of me as their Good Catholic Boy (which, to all intents and purposes, I suppose I still am, more or less, except for the lack of belief, the failure to attend Mass, and the prodigious vocabulary of words I’d never use in front of them). I’ll still go to Mass at least once a year, usually while I’m home for Christmas. This year, it was actually two days before Christmas, at the funeral of my paternal grandpa, our last surviving grandparent. Maybe my parents do know that I’m lapsed, and didn’t want to break my streak of one ceremony per year, because rather than have me stay with them on Christmas Eve and go to a vigil service as usual, they offered to pick me up on Christmas Day itself, after they themselves had been to church.

I’ll always consider myself Catholic. It’s an ingrained part of my identity, central to my upbringing, and for better or worse a crucial formative influence. My usual point of comparison is that I’m Catholic the way Woody Allen is Jewish (although I’m increasingly hesitant to break out that particular analogy of late): the belief might not be there but the culture surrounding it leaves a mark, an outlook, a mentality that’s hard to shake off, something beyond the famed sense of guilt.

I think my definitive break with the church came with the realisation that I’d never once had what’s commonly referred to as a religious experience within its walls. My moments of spiritual ecstasy, of communion with the universe and a sense of something greater than myself, had come in cinemas, in concert venues, or in the pages of books. I found God in art rather than ritual. That may sound glib, but it was a discovery hard-won after a process of self-realisation that took years (and was obviously coupled with a burgeoning leftist political identity that didn’t sit well with the entirety of the church’s teachings, to put it mildly).

All of which is a long preamble to saying that Martin Scorsese’s Silence is probably the greatest film I’ll never recommend to the majority of my friends, because my reaction to it felt so rooted in my own upbringing, my own process of questioning my faith, and the way my cinephilia helped me come to terms with it all. It demands serious engagement with questions of belief that, going by past experience, a lot of my cohorts on the secular left may be unwilling to give it. Not only that, its style is largely restrained, austere, ascetic even, drawing predictably upon a wealth of Japanese influences (Mizoguchi, Kobayashi, Imamura) but equally upon the work of western cinema’s great transcendentalists, Dreyer and Bresson, and, of course, the meeting point between those two spheres of influence, Ozu. It’s not the Scorsese of the popular imagination, the hyperkinetically assaultive stylist of GoodfellasRaging Bull, or most recently The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s Scorsese as awed, reverent congregant at the church of cinephilia, seeking epiphany in stillness and power in the cumulative, leaving with his own Ordet.

That power snuck up on me. I couldn’t point to any one particular moment that caught my breath, but so intense is its mood of contemplation that when an audience member’s watch beeped around the halfway point, it sounded like an alien transmission. By the time of the final cut to black, I could barely stand from my seat. Music is minimal, by which I mean barely present, at least in the traditional sense. Acts of violence and horror are depicted with an air of serenity. Lead Andrew Garfield has the look of an El Greco Jesus. God speaks, in the sense that Black Phillip speaks in Robert Eggers’ equally Dreyer-indebted The Witch (this, incidentally, was the moment that led to the highest proportion of audible sniggers amongst the audience with which I saw the film, which may give some indication as to how your own mileage may vary).

I always hesitate to say I identify with my artistic heroes, especially when they’re so self-evidently brilliant. But watching Silence gave me the same sense of comfort, I suppose is the word, as I got from reading Bruce Springsteen’s recent Born to Run: that there are other people out there who have gone through very similar things to you, that they’ve dealt with them in a similar way, then transubstantiated that into mind-altering art on a massive scale, and however isolated you might feel in your struggles of faith, of conscience, of principle, there’s always someone else who’s come through it themselves and is waiting to share that with the world. That Scorsese was able to smuggle an investigation of faith so sincere, conflicted and demanding, carried out in style so rigorous and steeped in cinema history, into multiplexes in the guise of a $50 million prestige picture feels like an act of grace in and of itself.