Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Written by: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô.
Starring: Andrew Garfield (Rodrigues), Adam Driver (Garrpe), Liam Neeson (Ferreira), Tadanobu Asano (Interpreter), Issei Ogata (Old Samurai / Inoue), Shin'ya Tsukamoto (Mokichi), Yoshi Oida (Ichizo), Yôsuke Kubozuka (Kichijiro), Ciarán Hinds (Father Valignano), Kaoru Endô (Unzen Samurai - Uneme).
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is his third film explicitly about religion – following 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Kundun – but in reality, almost all of his films about religion in one way or another. Silence focuses on a Portuguese Priest, who in the 1630s travels to Japan with a fellow priest, to try and track down their former mentor – who has apparently renounced his faith in the face of torture being inflicted on Christians at the time by the Japanese. The film focuses on something that has driven Scorsese his entire career – the difference between what the Church tells you to do, and its real world application. The priest at the heart of Silence would have suffered a lot less – both physically and mentally, and for a lot shorter period of time, had he clung more stubbornly to what the Church expected of him. But his humanity fights back against that – if it’s in his power to end the suffering of others, by doing something merely symbolic, should he not do that? Or is the symbolic that important? Scorsese doesn’t claim to have the answers to those questions in Silence – all he does is pose them. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the movie is that Scorsese resists the urge to sanctify or vilify anyone in the film. The priest is no saint, the Japanese not monsters – everyone is flawed.
The Priest at the heart of the movie is named Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), and at the beginning of the film he is confident in his faith, and in his calling. He and another priest, Garrpe (Adam Driver), are told by their superior of their mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), and his supposed betrayal – and warned against going to Japan. But, the two younger priests insist – they feel this is their mission, given to them by God, and they will see it through. When they arrive in Japan, things are more desperate than they could imagine. They are taken in by a small village of Christians, who have to hide their faith, lest they be killed for it. They have to hide all day, perform mass at night. They grow frustrated – they cannot find out anything about Ferreira, and how can they ever, if they are not allowed to leave. Their guide who led them to Japan Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a drunk harboring some deep, dark secrets – will eventually them to other places, where secret groups of Christians live. Eventually, of course, the two priests end up separated – and Rodrigues is brought before the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), whose job it is to root out secret Christians – by any means necessary. The Inquisitor doesn’t want any more martyrs however. There will be pain, there will be death – not for Rodrigues, but for the Japanese Christians arrested with him. It is within Rodrigues’ power to stop it from happening – all he has to do is renounce his faith.
I have heard some call Silence another in the long line of “white savior” movies that Hollywood makes often – those films in which its somehow a white guy who saves an oppressed group, even if in reality it was the whites doing the repressing. It’s a real problem in Hollywood – but I don’t think Scorsese’s film is that – not even a little. There seems to be some who attack Scorsese often for endorsing the behavior he depicts – it happened with GoodFellas, and definitely with his last film, The Wolf of Wall Street as well. Silence, while I believe has deep sympathy for Rodrigues, does not endorse what he does. It makes it clear that he has little to no understanding of Japan, or Japanese culture – and he isn’t much interested in learning. In his journal entries – that we hear in voiceover – he often refers to the Japanese – even the Christians among them – as poor, pathetic “beasts” – and views himself as some sort of savior. When he is brought before the Inquisitor, he is arrogant – relishing his opportunity to lecture, confident that he will be given his opportunity to die for his faith. He is almost smug when dealing with them. Yet, it is his humanity – and his empathy for the Japanese that eventually get him in trouble. Rodrigues will tell his “flock” it is okay to renounce their faith – the way to do this is symbolically step on a primitive image of Jesus the Inquisitor and his men lay before them – if it will save their lives. His partner, Garrpe, is horrified when Rodrigues says this – no, you cannot do that, he warns. That way lies damnation. Garrpe sees things in strictly black and white terms – and is extremely rigid in his viewpoint – which of course, makes things easier on him that on Rodrigues.
The Japanese in the film are likewise, complex – and the Japanese cast is truly great – especially Kobuzuka as Kichijiro, a Judas like figure in the film, given multiple opportunities to redeem himself, but never does, Tadanobu Asano, as the Interpreter brought in to help Rodrigues communicate, who knows precisely what is going to happen, and Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Yoshi Oida as two devout Christians, who show that devotion. The best performance in the film is probably by Ogata as the Inquisitor, a man capable of cruelty to be sure, but one who is also calm and rational when explaining his position to Rodrigues, and has a point – Japan is fighting the corrupting Western influence all around them. Sure, religion may seem harmless, but it brings with them a lot of other things – Japan does not want to be colonized after all.
Silence is a beautiful and ugly film at the same time. Scorsese shot in Taiwan, and his cinematographer – Rodrigo Prieto – is doing amazing work, capturing the beauty of the landscape, often engulfed in fog and smoke. Appropriately enough, Scorsese is not afraid of silence in the film – the film would, I think, work amazingly well had it been a completely silent film. The sounds that do stay with you are those of the suffering – whose screams haunt you, much as they haunt Rodrigues. There is a score credited, but I don’t remember hearing it until the end credits. Scorsese wants you to sit in the audience in the same contemplative mood as his characters.
From some, that simply won’t be possible. This is, after all, a nearly three hour movie, and its one that seems almost out-of-step with most contemporary films – especially studio films, which do not allow you the time to stop and think – to contemplate really. That’s one of the reasons that the film worked so well for me though – perhaps it’s out of step with contemporary times, but it should be, and perhaps more should be. We live in complicated times – times in which everything is a rush to judgment – to praise or condemn, to sanctify or vilify – to make bold, declarative e statements, proclaiming our allegiance to something, anything, right this instant. Silence asks more of us, as an audience, than that – and it’s why it’s one of the year’s best films.