Based on the historical fiction novel of the same name, Silence is the long-gestated passion project of director—and lapsed Catholic—Martin Scorsese. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a 17th century Jesuit priest from Portugal, smuggles into Japan with Father Garupe (Adam Driver) to discover the truth about their esteemed mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a devout missionary who has allegedly renounced his faith. Japan is a dangerous place for Christians as the government has outlawed Christianity and is punishing believers with torture and executions. Hidden by underground believers in the villages of Japan, Rodrigues finds his faith tested again and again as the horrors of persecution mount around him, and he eventually meets his powerful persecutors face-to-face. Beyond the external challenges to his beliefs, however, the greatest of all Rodrigues’ tests is the prolonged silence of God.
Scorsese finds great depth and beauty in this straightforward missionary story. The jungles and enclosures of Japan are shot with measured symmetry and glowing filters (reminding me a little of Steven Soderbergh’s Che). Even the violent scenes of torture have a sparse and haunting beauty. To my surprise and relief, the film is neither epic nor sensationalist, but it respectfully deals with some interesting questions and conundrums about faith. However, at over two and a half hours at a sedate pace, Silence could have either pushed the envelope even more or whittled away half an hour.
As the alternately remarkable and unremarkable protagonist, Garfield endures trials and temptations with faith, humility, and righteous agony. Often, Rodrigues is presented as a Christ-like figure, what with his long brown hair, humble garb, wholesome manner, and reliance on God, but the story manages to carefully avoid the white saviour complex by having the character deflect and self-efface. The film presents Rodrigues as an agent to serve and it addresses his mission directly and tactfully with his scenes with the villagers, whose resilient and pure faith moves him, and with the pro-Japan inquisitor, who questions and challenges him. There is also a Judas character in Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian who betrays both the faith and Rodrigues repeatedly but also comes back to plead for absolution again and again. Kichijiro’s multiple betrayals and returns also vaguely echo that of Simon Peter, who denounced Jesus three times but received forgiveness and ended up becoming one of the early leaders of the Church, although Kichijiro never becomes more than the person he already is.
The persecutions in Silence are of the physical and psychological kind. Believers are asked to renounce their faith, turn against each other, or watch each other suffer in cruel and unusual fashions. The inquisitor cleverly avoids making martyrs out of the Christians, which would fail to fully stamp out Christianity, by turning these tortures and executions against the priests, using the devoted villagers as helpless pawns who can only be saved by Rodrigues, Garupe, and Ferreira’s apostasy. This causes Rodrigues to question the purpose of his own faithfulness as he is forced to indirectly inflict pain on others. The hostile and sadistic persecutions are the bad cop to the good cop whisperings to just give up on faith and take the path of least resistance: symbolic renunciation via stepping on an image of Christ. For a long time, Rodrigues can resist both offers of temptation, thanks to the faith of the villagers and his own conviction, but his true inner conflict is directly with God’s silence. After being worn down by the suffering of innocents, Rodrigues finally receives God’s message: that He, Christ, understands his pain and is still there with him. The final act goes on with a jarringly detached air as an inconsequential Dutch trader narrates the rest of Rodrigues’ life, leaving the question of the priest’s true faith to be left unanswered until the closing shot.
Ratings (out of 5):
Overall Average: 4.3