D: Martin Scorsese / 161m
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oiza, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Ciarán Hinds
Seventeenth century Portugal: news has reached the Jesuit ministry that a missionary to Japan, Father Ferreira (Neeson), has renounced his faith and embraced not only the Japanese way of life, but their Buddhist teachings as well. Two of his pupils, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Driver), believing the news to be unsubstantiated rumour, are tasked with travelling to Japan and learning for themselves if the news is true. Needing a guide to help keep them safe once in Japan – the Japanese are persecuting anyone who promotes or follows the Christian faith – the two priests enlist the aid of Kichijiro (Kubozuka), a man whose contact with Christianity in his homeland has left him with a variety of personal demons.
Once in Japan, Rodrigues and Garupe soon discover how dangerous it is to be associated with Christianity. They witness the torture and murder of several villagers who have taken up the Christian faith, and are kept in hiding so that they don’t fall victim as well. They decide it will be safer for both of them if they split up, and make it easier to continue their search for Father Ferreira. But Rodrigues is soon captured. He’s assigned an interpreter (Asano), and is kept under the watchful eye of the local Inquisitor, Inoue-sama (Ogata). It soon transpires that Inoue wants Rodrigues to apostatize (renounce his belief in God) by stepping on an image of Christ. By this token, any Japanese who have been practicing Christianity will be allowed to live, and so will Rodrigues. Despite witnessing more atrocities, Rodrigues holds firm in his belief, even though his prayers remain frustratingly unanswered.
Rodrigues’ faith is tested time and again, and Inoue continually informs him of the obstacles that Christianity will always face in becoming established in Japan. Despair begins to set in when Garrpe is also found and his fate determined by an act of valour. For Rodrigues it’s the first of several turning points, all designed to bring him to the point of apostatizing, but when he finally comes face to face with Father Ferreira, instead of the encounter reaffirming his faith and his weakening determination to stand firm against the violence perpetrated by his captors, the priest finds himself even more stranded, both in terms of his faith and his emotions. With Inoue’s tactics beginning to finally wear him down, Rodrigues finds himself having to decide which is more important: his life and the lives of others, or his faith.
An adaptation of the novel by Shûsaku Endô (and previously made in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda), Silence has been a project that Martin Scorsese has been looking to make for around thirty years. Passion projects don’t always turn out so well for their makers, their closeness to the material producing a kind of tunnel vision that filters out any flaws, but with this, Scorsese has made a riveting movie about faith, religious idealism, and agonising self-doubt. It’s a measured, deliberately paced movie that is unlikely to satisfy everyone who sees it, but if you give yourself over to it, then it’s a movie that will reward you over and over again.
It opens with a blank screen and a cacophony of natural sounds including insects that builds to a crescendo before we see the title displayed briefly, and then the picture cuts to a medium shot of two severed heads resting on a piece of wood. It’s an arresting opening, and what follows isn’t for the faint hearted as Christian converts are tortured and left to die, with Neeson’s anguished priest looking on. This is the backdrop the movie keeps returning to, the resolute dispassion with which the Japanese treat all Christians in their country unless they apostatize themselves. And this is the very cauldron of hate that Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe throw themselves into thanks to their naivete and, it must be acknowledged, no small degree of religious arrogance. And it’s not long before they, and the viewer, realise that they’re out of their depth.
A major part of the narrative is taken up with the argument that Christianity has no place in the Japan of the seventeenth century, that the country’s Buddhist principles, although sharing many similar facets and ideas with the Christian faith, will never be superseded. Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks make much of this battle for hearts and minds, and the script is often eloquent on the subject, highlighting not the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, but their similarities. And the Japanese argument for religious isolationism has its merits when stood up against the arrogant assumption that the Japanese need Christianity to make their lives better. But while all this makes the argument sound quite a simple one, Scorsese and Cocks are also aware that faith – which can apparently move mountains – can also be stubbornly resistant to notions of change. Thus, Rodrigues endures physical torture and mental anguish, and has to be broken psychologically by Inoue (aided by the interpreter’s cruel barbs).
It’s always a difficult matter showing religious faith on screen without the characters seeming like zealots. Thanks to Scorsese’s meticulous direction, and Garfield’s magnificent central performance, Silence isn’t burdened by any notions of extreme religious belief, and nor is it hampered by too much exposition. Rodrigues’ and Garrpe’s mission is, on the face of it, a simple one, but as strangers in a strange land they underestimate their ability to make a difference. All they have is their belief in God, and it strengthens them. But when Rodrigues begins to doubt that God is even listening to his prayers, then it’s only a matter of time before that belief will be tested, and how strong that belief really is. Scorsese keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, piling on the pressure, but in such a way that you don’t know which way Rodrigues will fall: back into renewed faith, or forward into religious exclusion.
With the religious and cultural backdrops firmly established throughout, Scorsese refrains from adding the political upheaval Japan was experiencing at the time, and which played such a heavy part in the country’s rejection of the Christian faith. It’s a wise move, as the narrative isn’t about politics per se, but Inoue makes an important point at one stage, likening Spain, Portugal, Holland and England to the four courtesans of a king who wisely sends them away to guarantee himself a quiet life. The question is, why should Japan open its borders to other countries and see its lifestyle and traditions trampled upon? Again, Scorsese keeps the material focused on the battle for the hearts and minds of the Japanese people, and the audacity of the Jesuits for believing they could, and should, undermine a foreign culture.
Away from ideas of faith and religious fundamentalism, Silence is also a quietly beautiful movie to watch, with almost painting-like vistas and compositions delicately brought to the screen by the extraordinary combination of Rodrigo Pietro’s exquisite cinematography, Thelma Schoonmaker’s matchless editing skills, and Dante Ferretti’s outstanding production and costume designs. This is organic movie making at its best, a never-ending feast for the senses that’s rounded off by a lilting, elegant score courtesy of Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge. And then there’s the performances. Garfield – maybe not everyone’s first choice for the lead role – impresses at every step, giving a passionate, despairing portrayal of a man facing a seemingly impossible choice: renounce God (and himself), or be complicit in the deaths of potentially thousands of people. Garfield is growing in stature as an actor, and with this and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) under his belt, is heading for the A-list at a rate of knots. He’s ably supported by Driver (though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time), a slyly vindictive turn from Asano, and Ogata’s distinctive, hypnotic, somewhat casual portrayal of a man who uses physical and psychological torture to ensure his country’s religious status quo. As for Neeson, his presence is necessarily limited, but when he is on screen, his appearance serves as a reminder that, outside out of certain recent movies he’s appeared in, he’s more than capable of giving a nuanced and intuitive performance.
As mentioned above, and at 161 minutes, Silence and its subject matter will no doubt put off some potential viewers, and it’s likely that many who do see it will not be swayed by its content, or Scorsese’s approach to the material. But this really is the work of a director operating at a very high level indeed, and his confidence and expertise is there in every scene and every shot. It’s a rare movie that examines religious morality and personal faith with such authority and poise, but Scorsese has pulled it off, and with no small measure of style.
Rating: 9/10 – superb on just about every level (only Garfield’s wandering accent is any cause for annoyance or concern), Silence is a demanding yet rewarding watch made by a director whose engagement with the material is masterful; a devastating movie about ideas that is intelligent and precise in its meanings, this is a very (very) early contender for Movie of the Year.