“Silence” Is a Powerful, If Long, Elegy to Faith and Meaning


Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

Though possibly an hour too long, Martin Scorsese’s Silence – a monumental testament to the power and ravages of religious faith – is the director’s best work in years. Beautifully acted by Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Adam Driver (Paterson), Shin’ya Tsukamoto (Kotoko), Tadanobu Asano (Grasshopper), Yôsuke Kubozuka (Helter Skelter), Liam Neeson (A Monster Calls) and Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), among many others, the film is notable for its dramatic restraint, as if Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) had taken the title to heart. An adaptation of Japanese author Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, Silence tells the story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to Japan who have the grave misfortune to be alive in the early 17th century, when that country decided to close itself off to foreign influence, effectively banning all practicing Christians and those who would serve them and convert still more. Left on their own by the rulers back home, these priests struggle against impossible odds tending to their shattered flock. The real challenge is their own despair. In response to prayer, they hear only God’s silence. This is the ultimate test of belief.

Scorsese starts the movie with the gentle sound of birds under a black screen, before cutting immediately to silence. We then find ourselves on a sloping hill, a thick mist outlining armored figures like an homage to an Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) film. This is 1633, just as the anti-Christian purges begin. Neeson plays Father Ferreira, a gaunt hulk of a man who watches the crucifixions without any sense of how to prevent them. His weary voice narrates the massacre, the report of which reaches the head of his order (Hinds) in Lisbon, who reads aloud its contents to Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver), two younger priests trained by Ferreira. They determine to travel back to Japan to investigate, since no one has heard from Ferreira for years now (mail traveled slowly in that time), and simultaneously offer succor to persecuted believers. They eventually make it to their destination, via China, thanks to an alcoholic Japanese fisherman, Kichijiro (Kubozuka), who was once a Christian, but has now renounced the faith. Once in Japan, Rodrigues and Garrpe discover a village of secret believers, who take in the foreigners and hide them by day, worshipping by night. Eventually, however, the chief inquisitor (Tsukamoto) arrives, having heard rumors of new “padres” (as the priests are called by the locals), and both he and his interpreter (Asano) prove to be clever and ruthless antagonists. The weight of history is against our Jesuit friends. This will not end well.

And yet, unlike most other films by Scorsese, there will not be a lot of bloodshed (though there is one grisly beheading). Instead, the director focuses on the inner torture of these quiet souls, who fervently believe in what they preach and are unable to comprehend the Japanese authorities’ aggression. We know that Japan, in its own eyes, had very good reason to fear the encroachment of foreign (i.e., European) powers, given what was happening elsewhere in the world. It was not until the 19th century that the country opened its doors to the then-modern world, and though the Japanese were technologically backwards as a result of their previous isolation, they were also masters of their own political fate (as much as a feudal society can be), and not a colonial outpost. However one feels about the decision to expel the non-violent priests – whose religion was seen as a gateway to further foreign influence – there was a method to the madness. Unfortunately, despite the fact that these reasons are explained, at one point, by the film’s Japanese characters, there are still moments when Silence threatens to become like many another movie about Japanese internment-camp atrocities, such as Angelina Jolie’s recent Unbroken. We’ve seen that story a few too many times. Fortunately, however, Scorsese quickly moves beyond the clichés to examine the psychological toll of the torture on men who have professed to love God at all costs.

What is faith, and when is one prepared to die for it? Is one prepared to watch others die for one’s own beliefs? This is the true nature of the dilemma faced by Rodrigues, Garrpe and Ferreira. They are repeatedly asked to commit apostasy and deny their religion, and each faces the crisis in his own way. Some do, some don’t, some resist and then do. Endō, who based his novel on real-life accounts, explores in depth the limits of human physical and spiritual endurance. Perhaps Scorsese’s film is so long to test our own endurance, yet there is magnificent beauty throughout. Garfield, especially, whose character’s arc forms the main through line, holds the movie together with a performance of extreme sensitivity, ably supported by a very strong Driver and Neeson. Quiet and disciplined, they turn Silence into a plaintive meditation on sacrifice and survival that is an elegant elegy to our eternal search for meaning in this world.

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