Film Review – Silence
In a way, Martin Scorsese’s entire career has been leading up to Silence (2016). Not only has he been trying to adapt Shûsaku Endô’s novel for decades, but this is the most direct examination of the themes that Scorsese has returned to again and again. Ever since Harvey Keitel held his finger to a flame in Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese has revisited the conflict between the sanctity of the Christian faith and the weaknesses of a mortal being. He once studied for priesthood, but his love for the cinema took him toward a different path. And yet, he has used film to traverse the questions and doubts that have obsessed him for his entire life: If God is pure and ever loving, why does He allow such pain to be inflicted on His creations?
Fans of Scorsese’s more hyperkinetic work may be in for a surprise. This is one of his most languid, slow moving stories. He steps away from the flashy camera moves, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing doesn’t incorporate the frenzied style that some have grown accustomed to. Often times, Rodrigo Prieto’s camera sits back as a detached observer, with the editing slowing down to regard scenes with extended detail. The music is sparse and rarely noticed – Scorsese opts for a more naturalistic approach: waves crashing against rocks, crickets buzzing in the night, wind blowing through grass. Juxtaposed with these austere sounds is that of cries and screams. The lack of a musical score somehow amplifies the terror that comes with this material. Make no mistake about it: despite the more gradual pacing, this may be one of Scorsese’s most violent undertakings.
It’s one of his most violent films because the suffering not only comes from the body, but more so from the soul. Just as Jesus struggled with the pleasures of the flesh in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), here we see a number of devout Christian followers enduring tremendous hardship with their faith being the central cause. In the seventeenth century, two Jesuit priests – Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) – discover that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy (denouncing one’s faith) while doing missionary work in Japan. Unable to believe this news, Rodrigues and Ferreira take it upon themselves to travel to Japan to investigate what happened to Ferreira while continuing their work in spreading Christianity.
What they soon discover is a country that has outlawed any religion outside of Buddhism. Any person suspected of practicing Christianity is put to a test in which they must commit an act of sacrilege to prove themselves, whether it’s openly denouncing their faith, spitting on a crucifix, or placing their foot upon a religious carving. Those who resist are put through tremendous physical and psychological torture, but not upon themselves. Others are persecuted, maimed, and killed in an attempt to break those who resist, especially missionaries. It goes without saying that the presence of Father Rodrigues and Garrpe is soon discovered by local authorities, and that is where the true purpose of Scorsese’s narrative resides.
The philosophical implications of this premise are tough to deal with, and Scorsese doesn’t make it any easier on us by providing solid answers. But that’s where his mastery shows. He prods, questions, and challenges. What does it mean to be faithful? What does it mean to be good to one’s religion? If God were truly understanding, would He forgive a person who commits apostasy in an effort to relieve the anguish of others? When Father Rodrigues is put under the strain of his torture, he continually asks for God’s guidance and help, but no answer is returned (hence the “Silence” of the title). Is Rodrigues a good man for remaining strong and resisting, or is he being selfish to allow others to die for his cause? He’s told repeatedly that stepping on a picture of Christ is a mere formality. The authorities don’t really care what he believes and that the lightest touch of his foot would set others free. But what does Rodrigues believe? Is the act meaningless or meaningful? What would God tell him to do?
Those who aren’t perceptive may charge the film as being too sympathetic toward the Christians while portraying the Japanese as too villainous. This is not the case. In fact, what makes the clash of cultures so captivating is how persuasive the Japanese argument is. We’re told that the Japanese authorities have fully studied the Christian faith, and found that it has no place in their country. The introduction of a western belief system would point toward the destruction of their own. Rodrigues is challenged on a philosophical playing field, and his challengers’ points are just as convincing as his. The head of the local authorities, known as The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is charming and often funny. The man assigned to be Rodrigues’ interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) has a friendly and warm demeanor. This makes Rodrigues’ predicament all the more difficult. Despite the cruelty they inflict, the Japanese emphasize the point that it was Christians who invaded their land, not the other way around.
I was most drawn to the character of Kichijiro, played by Yosuke Kubozuka. Kichijiro is introduced as a wretch, so torn in his beliefs that he has completely lost his way. He was once a practicing Christian, but when discovered, he committed apostasy as a means of self-preservation. This act has haunted him ever since. He begs Rodrigues to hear his confession and forgive him, but fully admits that he is weak and would most likely do the same thing again if put in the same position. Is Kichijiro a good Christian for harboring the guilt over what he’s done, or is he pathetic for crumbling so quickly at the critical moment? Kichijiro encompasses Scorsese’s themes at a heightened level – everything there is to say can be seen in his character.
Silence was not made for entertainment. Its purpose is to take these age-old values and place them under an intense microscope. Martin Scorsese is one of the most religious filmmakers the cinema has ever seen, and is one of the best because he doesn’t just sermonize to the audience. He doesn’t dismiss either side, but he ponders with an intensity of a man desperate for answers. I grew up in a strict Catholic household, and much of what Scorsese shows here hit particularly close to the heart for me. He’s a filmmaker whose fanatical passion kept him driving to get this story on the big screen. As a result, he has given us what may be his most personal work yet.