Silence is vintage Martin Scorsese. The master’s techniques are evident in practically every frame, and his return to a religious subject matter is both fascinating and complex. Nearly three decades ago, The Last Temptation of Christ showed that Scorsese was capable of delivering a nuanced treatise on spirituality, and he has done the same with Silence. These topics are seldom tackled by Scorsese, so we should count ourselves lucky when the director is inspired by a story such as Silence, which has been in pre-production in some form for the last 25 years or so.
The film, adapted from the Shūsaku Endō novel of the same name, tells the story of a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests who embark on a quest to 17th-century Japan to find their mentor. During this period, Catholicism was outlawed in Japan, and practitioners of the faith were often tortured until they recanted their beliefs, and put to death if they didn’t. Silence is part treatise faith, doubt, and the question of why God allows suffering. But it is also about a clash of cultures, and the idea that a culture itself can be inherently opposed to outside ways of thinking. Silence is a film obsessed with a personal relationship with God, a relationship which lay only in one’s own heart – a place that no manner of torture and kowtowing can reach or extinguish.
For all the grandeur in subject and theme, Silence presents a meek plot. After a disarming opening title sequence, the film focuses on two Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). Their superior is reading an account of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), which casts him as an apostate living a monk’s life in Japan. The two priests refuse to accept this slander, and set off to find Ferreira.
The entirety of the film details their journey into the maw of a perilous Japan. Along the way, they hold secret masses for covert Christians, evade capture from the inquisitors, and are beset with spiritual quandary at nearly every turn. When members of their furtive flock are forced to trample on a fumi-e (a stone likeness of Jesus or Mary) to prove that they are not Christians, should the priests instruct the peasants to trample and apostatize, or to refuse and suffer the punishment? To what length can Rodrigues and Garupe witness death and torture? The men answer this challenge in different ways, but both performances are powerful and heart-wrenching. Driver does more with less screen time, but Garfield offers a poignant performance as well.
Two characters represent a kind of spiritual grayness in the film, one from the Japanese perspective, and one from the Jesuits. Yōsuke Kubozuka plays Kichijiro, a lapsed Japanese Christian who routinely betrays the faith and then requests absolution through the rite of confession. Father Ferreira is Kichijiro’s Western counterpart, existing in a between his traditional Christian teachings and the more naturalistic Japanese philosophies. These men are both struggling Christians, but for profoundly different reasons. They represent the middle-ground approach to spirituality, and their devotion to Christianity is largely subsumed by the Japanese culture beset against them.
In the case of Kichijiro, that culture is the one he was born into, and the film suggests that his culture prevents him from truly understanding Christianity as the Westerners do. It is intimated that Kichijiro, and the rest of the peasants, misunderstand the faith, resulting in a kind of ersatz devotion which is meaningless in the eyes of God. Kobuzuka is magnificent in this role, and practically demands pity from the audience at each turn, no matter how angry we get with him.
His counterpart Father Ferreira is one of the original apostate priests. When we meet him, he has settled in to the Japanese lifestyle and is studying their traditions and their own kind of spirituality. What the character of Kichijiro suggests, Ferreira states outright. He is brought in to assist his fellow priests on their road to rejecting the faith, and his arguments echo the philosophies of the Japanese higher-ups (which we’ll get to next). And yet, there is a certain mystery to the character, as though the pain that he publicizes to the world is a facade meant to hide his true devotion.
And finally, on the pure Japan end of the spectrum, we have the staunch anti-Christians: Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige (The Inquisitor) and Tadanobu Asano as the interpreter. These are crucial characters that speak from positions of physical and philosophical strength and provide the antithesis to the Jesuit doctrine. Despite their position as “antagonists” they are portrayed as nuanced, intelligent, and determined. Though brutal in their methods, their devotion to unfamiliar principles makes them important stalwarts beset against our protagonists.
There are also titanic performances in small places in Silence, mostly from the villagers. There are too many to name, but suffice to say that practically no characters are wasted in Silence, every one that makes it on screen plays a part in the plot, theme, and overall power of the film.
Scorsese weaves the philosophies of these key characters into a greater tapestry through commensurate stylistic choices. Fans of the director will recognize his penchant for portraying violence. Crucially, the violence in Silence confronts the audience with much more realism than something like Goodfellas or The Departed. Scorsese frames the violence for maximum impact to the protagonist priests. Once it becomes clear that the Inquisitors are intent of making an example of the priests by forcing them to apostatize, the audience reaction to the brutality on screen becomes a proxy for what the priests are experiencing, placing the same moral quandary on us. It isn’t fun to watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s character have his broken arm battered by Jack Nicholson in The Departed, but you don’t really empathize with him in that scene in any meaningful way – especially when compared to some of the interrogation sequences later in the film. Mostly, this style of violence is pulpy. There’s zero of that in Silence.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does some staggering work in Silence. Prieto captures a palpable distance with his lenses in the film, showing victims of punishment far from our vantage point, which is often the point-of-view of one or both of the Jesuit priests (see below). We are forced to focus on something happening deep in the background quite often in this film. This imparts a terrible impotence on the viewer, as all of the bad things are happening so far away and there’s nothing we can do to help. This technique makes the image convey the story in a wonderfully emotional way. Other similar techniques include shooting through the bars of jail cells to convey captivity (and by extension, more powerlessness), and playing with the focus to suggest spiritual confusion or doubt.
Silence sometimes relies on voice-over narration, usually framed as the reading of a letter written by Father Rodrigues, but there are also occasions where the voice-over presents his inner monologue. This can come off as a bit lazy, especially when it is re-iterating the character’s responses to things we’ve already seen on screen. I have little issue forgive most instances of voice-over narration, given that this is also a major storytelling mechanism in the novel itself, but when it is repetitive (and better expressed by Garfield’s performance), it feels like spoon-feeding.
More subtle ideas are conveyed by Scorsese through some clear homages to his predecessors. Lovers of Akira Kurosawa will definitely recognize a few shots that are directly lifted from some of his most classic films. The first I recognized was during Father Rodrigues’ trial, which evokes multiple sequences from Rashoman. This marries the themes of Silence with those of Kurososawa’s film, which is all about differing viewpoints.
Because Silence is absolutely pregnant with thematic material. Unfortunately, it undercuts many of them in the final act by losing its focus and failing to develop the central conflict of the film. The film investigates ideological conflicts, the nature of spirituality and faith, one’s propensity for doubt, and the responsibility to end suffering regardless of the personal price. These ideas are contemplated throughout the film, and are expressed through the powerful performances and keen stylistic choices mentioned above.
The weak point in the thematic offering is the distinct anti-colonialist sentiment, in the form of a desire to prevent outside forces and ideas from replacing more traditional ones. The reasons why Christianity shouldn’t be made available to the Japanese is left fairly vague, other than the simplistic interpretation that “Our faith is right, their faith is wrong”. This is a central theme of the source material, and feels especially poorly developed in the film. This is the major thematic weakness of Silence, as we are never shown the “swamp of Japan” as anything more than a justification for all the brutality. With a more detailed and developed treatment of these ideas, the other themes of the film would be strengthened. Instead, it relegates the Japanese to intolerant brutes, and wastes the nuanced performances from Ogata and Asano.
There are many moving parts to Silence; it is practically impossible to sum up the film in a digestible sound-bite. It is a juggernaut of ideas, and I would consider it one of Scorsese’s best efforts. It invites multiple viewings and analyses from many angles and perspectives. There is no doubt that the themes of Silence will engender more passionate responses from spiritual spectators compared with secular ones (both positive and negative), but it is folly to classify this great film as belonging to one doctrine alone. Silence is a cinematic powerhouse replete with mesmerizing camerawork, potent performances, and reverberating themes.