Faith is a really, really, really complicated thing. Only a handful of filmmakers have tackled the subject as fiercely, in all its complexities. One of them being Martin Scorsese, for whom the existential struggle of faith – specifically with Christianity – has been woven into the DNA of many of his films. And that struggle, which has been so obviously, deeply personal, is brought to the forefront in a way he hasn’t done since The Last Temptation of Christ back in 1988. I’m talking about Silence, which – for anyone who has followed Scorsese’s career – is a project that he has tried making happen for the past several decades.
Based on the book of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, the film follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), who take it upon themselves to travel to Japan when they receive the news that Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has allegedly committed apostasy after being tortured.
I should say, if you’re the kind of person who only likes Scorsese for films like Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street, then this is not the film for you. Silence is easily the most quiet and meditative in Scorsese’s entire filmography. It’s a film that takes its time, it lingers on shots of our characters, it breaths in the scenery. It has shades of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, but still it is, without a doubt, a Scorsese film. It’s also an incredibly rough film, for many reasons. It displays scenes of absolute brutality, both of the physical variety, but also – and arguably more important – the emotional.
It seems like Scorsese’s entire career at this point has been leading him just to make this film. It’s a film so deliberate and methodical in how the story is told that it could only be as effective as it is because it’s from someone who has had a career spanning over four decades. As someone for whom faith has been a large part of my upbringing, and has continuously struggled with my own beliefs, I have always found Scorsese’s tackling of Christianity endlessly fascinating, and that’s despite the fact that it isn’t Christianity that I have struggled with. He just manages to present his explorations with such efficiency and universality that it resonates despite the very specific aims at his own Catholic upbringing.
Silence in particular allows him to go full force on his exploration of faith, and it’s his most dense work yet. It manages to also be a rorschach test of sorts, allowing each viewer to apply their their own thoughts at the events happening on screen. Even though there is a “villain” with a man known as the Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the film brings an empathy to his position as someone trying to keep, what he considers, undesirables out of his home land. There’s a weird twisted logic to what he is doing, and the film allows him to express himself without any judgment coming from the filmmaking. On that same note, the film is very aware of the imperialistic undertones and arrogance that goes into the priest’s missionary work, it confronts it at several points, but – again – it doesn’t judge our characters for it. It’s a film that not only encourages, but it straight up demands you to take everything into consideration and make your own interpretation out of what it happening on screen.
Of course, it’s not just the strengths of the filmmaking (quick shoutout to cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, and Scorsese’s regular – and always great – editor, Thelma Schoonmaker) that makes the film work, it definitely rides on the fantastic performances from the cast. Obviously, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, and Ciarán Hinds are great. I would like to highlight the amazing Japanese actors in the film because they deserve just as much, if not more, recognition. Tadanobu Asano, who you might recognize from the Thor movies as Hogun, plays the translator for the priests when they get captured. Shin’ya Tsukamoto, a prominent Japanese director (Tetsuo the Iron Man, Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, Kotoko, Fires on the Plain, etc.) has a wonderful and emotional turn as a Christian villager who is willing to do whatever it takes to assist the priests and spread the word of Christ. Yôsuke Kubozuka plays a character that will definitely stick with you probably because of how frustrating he is, but he’s frustrating in a way that the film totally empathizes with, and he rides that fine line with precision. Nana Komatsu has a fairly minor role as a Christian villager that gets captured along with the priests, but it’s nonetheless well performed. She was actually the star of one of my favorite films of 2015 called The World of Kanako, it’s a great atmospheric neo-noir, and she’s stellar in it. And last, but not least, Issei Ogata, who you might remember as Mr. Ota if you saw the 2000 classic, Yi Yi. There’s a quiet intensity that he brings to his rather antagonistic role that is simply outstanding, but also a weirdness that might come from his background in comedy, which makes many scenes much more uncomfortable than they would be otherwise.
I came out of Silence absolutely shaken and moved, it is undoubtedly another masterwork from one of the great all-time filmmakers. However, I think there are ways that I think the film could have improved. The main issue is the need to stick the film from the priest’s perspective, while essential for the story, it leaves the Japanese out in the cold. The film, oddly enough, doesn’t really give you a whole lot of historical context for what is going on, not that I can remember at least. I felt compelled to look up more on the Shimabara Rebellion, Tokugawa shogunate, and the Kakure Kirishitan after seeing the film. I would’ve also liked to know what it was that drew so many Japanese to the Christian faith in the first place. I wouldn’t make such a big deal about the lack of Japanese perspective in the film, if it weren’t for the current political climate. I can guarantee you that Silence will likely be hijacked by Christian conservatives as “proof” that Christians have always – and still is – dealing with persecution, and I don’t think I’ll ever have the patience to deal with that. Especially considering that I’m someone who has (willfully) sat through horrendous Christian films, many of which argued that Christians are facing some form of persecution in America right now. Having that Japanese perspective might not have taken that away, but it would have at least brought something interesting to the table. I’m not arguing that this makes the film “bad” in any way, just that the film is not coming out at the best time.
Silence is one of the most deeply personal and introspective films I’ve seen in recent memory. I don’t know if anything I write can fully do it justice. It’s a film that presents so many questions, so many moments, and so many images, but no answers. It reflects the constant struggle of faith, and what the word truly entails. It may take place hundreds of years in the past, but speaks to so many greater truths that are relevant and necessary to address even today. Scorsese (who co-wrote the film with Jay Cocks) really swings for the fences with this film in ways he hasn’t quite done before, and his passion shows in each and every frame. Though, I gotta say, my immediate thought when the film was over was that I am so glad that I’m not Christian, you guys have way too much baggage. 95/100