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On How Scorsese Makes the Most of Silence in His Films


On the use of silence —and its powerful effect— in this enchanting director’s films.

Silence is, knowledgably, one of the most powerful weapons. In the universe of aesthetics, the absence of sound is understood as a sound in and of itself; it is used as a quality that bestows suspense, drama, elegance or solemnity upon the space where it is imposed. This video, part of the series Every Frame a Painting, explains how Martin Scorsese uses silence in his films.

The didactic space in Every Frame a Painting is devoted to the analysis of cinematographic technique —photography, sound editing, etc.— of acclaimed films and directors. In the case of “The Art of Silence”, the exploration is mainly based on Scorsese’s film-scenes in which silence inspires peace, suspense or comicality in what takes places in the cinematographic narrative.

Even if Scorsese is known for the memorable soundtracks of his films, there are times when silence is even more intense than any sound that could have invaded the filmic moment (and therefore, of course, his music is also more powerful).

An iconic example of this is the scene in Raging Bull (1980) in which Jake La Motta, masterfully interpreted by Robert De Niro, is at the verge of becoming the victim of a violent massacre in the boxing ring and, just seconds before the blow, everything is silence. Another example of this is in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), when Jesus, having spent some time nailed to the cross, becomes enlightened and all the noise, pain and suffering that surround him diffuse to become a silent state of ecstasy ––a cinematographic effect based on the contrast of sound.

In addition to using silence to intensify the dramatic peaks, Scorsese also uses silence as a comedic resource; to accomplish the character’s subjective point of view; or to stress the emotiveness of an instant.

Scorsese’s films bequeath silence with emotion and sound, they absorb it in different forms and for different purposes, but always with the masterfulness that characterizes the genius behind Taxi Driver, who is capable of transforming silence into a powerful effect at the service of the artist. Or, as John Cage would establish: silence is full of content and can be heard.

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