“The sun compels me to paint. I can’t waste my time!” — Martin Scorsese, playing Vincent van Gogh, in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
Art, ideally, would not be made to make money. Art shouldn’t even be made to please its audience. Art should express its author. And, if it is great, it will express a transcendent humanity. It is a sad reality of film that movies are, and must be, designed to make money. Dreams and Silence, though, are the rare mass market films that seem uninterested in commercial enterprise at all. Silence, in particular, is animated by an emotional urgency that evinces a deep and sincere authorial investment. It will almost certainly fail to make its budget back.
Martin Scorsese first conceived of Silence in 1990 while he was in Japan for the filming of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Kurosawa’s third-to-last film. Scorsese, speaking English in an otherwise Japanese-language film, plays Vincent Van Gogh in “Crows,” one of of the film’s eight vignettes. Though Kurosawa directed twenty-one films from 1945 to 1965, he made only four between 1965’s Red Beard and 1990’s Dreams. Incredibly, Kurosawa had difficulty securing funding in Japan. American film directors, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, helped secure funding for Dreams from Warner Brothers. Scorsese waited more than twenty years to secure the money he needed for Silence.
Dreams is an unusual film. It relates eight unconnected vignettes of varying quality. All betray little of Kurosawa’s subconscious or the curious logic of sleeping people. The first two stories, “Sunshine Through The Rain” and “The Peach Orchard,” are charmingly nostalgic portraits of a surreal relationship between a young boy and an unpredictable nature capable of sublime beauty, anger, and sudden threats of violence. The following two stories, “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel,” switch abruptly to nightmares of death. The tone of the film is uneven. Despite the amusing presence of Scorsese, “Crows” goes nowhere. “Mount Fuji in Red” and “The Weeping Demon” are apocalyptic visions, but they’re too didactic to frighten. The final vignette, “Village of the Watermills,” presents an idealized fantasy of a village that has rejected the modern world. It too transparently intends to end the movie on a hopeful note, and it fails to rise above cliché.
Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests who enter Japan in the seventeenth century. At a plodding 161 minutes, Silence would probably be more entertaining if it was 30 or even 60 minutes shorter. But it isn’t entirely clear if Scorsese is concerned with the audience’s enjoyment of his film. Silence is the uncommon film that is more concerned with what it’s saying than with how well it’s saying it. The best films, clearly, combine flawless form with deep insight. A film that elegantly says nothing is worthless, though, and a film that says something, however clumsily, is always worthwhile. This is not to say Silence lacks good technique; it doesn’t. The visuals are stunning, the acting is excellent, and the dialogue is well-written. Some scenes, though, drag, as many characters speak English in an arbitrary mix of American and Portuguese accents, and English, somewhat confusingly, often, but not always, also stands in for Japanese. None of this, though, is terribly distracting.
The concerns of Silence are the nature of faith and the consequences of a universal truth. What right do the Jesuits have to impose their faith onto the Japanese? If Catholicism is the only path to heaven, what right do the Jesuits have to hoard it, to deny the knowledge of Christ and the possibility of salvation to anyone? Is it right to renounce the truth on pain of death? Is it bravery or selfishness to refuse to renounce your faith on the pain of the death of other people? Can you be privately Catholic while publicly denouncing the faith?
It is sometimes hard to understand unreserved and total faith in an increasingly secular age. Even the most devout cannot return to a time before widespread and public atheism existed. This distance makes films about faith even more important. Film, like all art, should allow empathy with and understanding of those different from ourselves. An honest discussion of belief, though, is wholly incompatible with the widespread cinematic goal of avoiding controversy and division at any cost. Outside of the subgenre of uncritically religious movies, religion is seldom seriously addressed, and given Silence’s box office returns, this is understandable if not right or good.
The concerns of Silence are anything but dated and dead. Do all people have a right to democracy and human rights or do nations have a right to pursue their own values? Is it right to try to convince the oppressed of the importance of Western values of liberty even at the cost of their safety? What right does a democratic country have to collaborate with the oppression of dictatorships by recognizing their authority? What right does the West have to impose its values?
It’s striking how seldom art seriously addresses these issues given their obvious and immediate moral importance. That Silence thoughtfully and movingly wrestles with them through the lens of seventeenth-century Portuguese missionaries in Japan is an immensely impressive achievement.
Dreams is not one of Kurosawa’s best films. Kurosawa’s early career produced both more and better films. His early films were also shorter. 1950’s Rashomon, Kurosawa’s first film to achieve widespread international success, is 88 minutes. 1990’s Dreams is 119. The unfortunate dark side of directorial control of film, it seems, is overly long movies. But this is a relatively small price to pay.
Dreams is very little like Kurosawa’s other films. Kurosawa’s films, especially his earlier ones, are more narrative than episodic. Many are action movies. But his later years instilled a newfound contemplativeness. 1980’s Kagemusha and 1985’s Ran are both samurai epics closer to three hours than two. His last film, 1993’s Madadayo (Not Yet), follows the same characters its whole run time, but it’s every bit as episodic as Dreams.
Dreams, if sharing little stylistically with Kurosawa’s other works (Dreams, unusually for a Kurosawa film, has no wipes), has some thematic similarities. There’s a respect for nature, a distrust of modern life, a fear of technology, and a complicated relationship with violence. Intrinsically interesting, Dreams is also a revealing window into the thoughts (if not the subconscious) of Kurosawa.
Silence is one of Scorsese’s best, if not most entertaining, films. And it moves through many of the same themes that have animated all his works. Scorsese does not seem to be entering a late period decline, nor does he seem to be making more subdued films. 2011’s Hugo and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, though both over two hours, betray no diminished sense of life, and they are both great films.
Scorsese does not borrow from Kurosawa as transparently as George Lucas (note the number of wipes in the Star Wars movies), but critics have noted Kurosawa’s influence on Silence. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, writing for The A.V. Club, notes that “the film’s use of telephoto lenses to stage shots with multiple characters is overtly reminiscent of Kurosawa.” Mark Jenkins, reviewing Silence for NPR, though wrongly dismissing Scorsese’s recent films as “flashy trivialities,” rightly finds echoes of the trial in Kurosawa’s Rashomon in Silence and notes the contrast between the acting of “the Westerners [who] go for a more inward approach” and the “stagier, and even comic” acting of “inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) and his translator (Tadanobu Asano),” which seems to reference Kurosawa, “whose period films featured Kabuki-inspired performances.” Indeed, the character of Kichijiro and his portrayal by Yosuke Kubozuka both seem to come from Kurosawa. Kichijiro has a tragicomic spinelessness and Kobozuka’s acting (especially the way he runs) has a stylized expressiveness that wouldn’t be out of place in Rashomon or Seven Samurai.
Jenkins claims “the final scene is the most Hollywood thing about the movie,” a “somber and glib” departure from the source novel. But Jenkins misses the point when he deploys “Hollywood” as an insult. The ending is rather, as Vishnevetsky suggests, a fitting conclusion that finds mystical affirmation through droll subversion. Ambiguity is not an intrinsic virtue. Silence can breed both productive uncertainty and needless equivocation. An emphatic ending can be a good thing; it can cut off uninteresting questions.
While Dreams steps backs from the brink of the apocalypse to impart false hope, Silence achieves a moment of, if not transcendence, at least sublime satisfaction. It answers none of the vexing questions the film raises, but it securely gives Scorsese the chance to say something.