Silence is a beautiful film that rivals Andrei Rublev as one of the greatest theatrical depictions of the strength of faith in the face of atrocity.
Ever since Martin Scorsese filmed Harvey Keitel steadying his palm over a flame in Mean Streets (1973), the director’s uneasy relationship with faith has burrowed its way into his movies. “It’s all bullshit except the pain,” Keitel’s Charlie tells us in voiceover. “The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite.” The fine line between grace, devotion and the fires of hell is something that has long fascinated Scorsese as he has explored the lives of gangsters, saints, Jesus Christ and even the Dalai Lama. In Silence, the director’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel about a Portuguese priest searching for his teacher in 17th century Japan, Scorsese comes the closest yet in his vast oeuvre to making a movie purely about divinity and the folly of unwavering faith. Brutal, serious and sometimes slow, Silence is a beautiful film that rivals Andrei Rublev as one of the greatest theatrical depictions of the strength of faith in the face of atrocity and inquisition.
Silence is a palate-cleanser for the director, who is coming off a string of movies with Leonardo DiCaprio that explored excess, hubris and mental instability. His prior film, the masterful The Wolf of Wall Street, found Scorsese reconnoitering the debaucheries of Wall Street in the ‘80s. Loaded with boobs and drugs, The Wolf of Wall Street is the antithesis of Silence, an ascetic experience that feels its nearly three-hour runtime. We follow Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as he and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) travel from Macau to Japan to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit priest who is rumored to have turned his back on Christianity and renounced his faith rather than suffer the torture and execution that befell other Christians in Japan during that epoch. Pariahs in a land where Christianity has been outlawed, the two priests are abetted by Christian villagers in their search, well aware that if they are caught it could mean torture and death for anyone unwilling to renounce their faith.
Working with screenwriter Jay Cocks, Scorsese has adapted Endō’s book into a spare, difficult vision of a time period where religious intolerance and brutality reigned. Scorsese and Endō’s windswept Japan is a rugged, dangerous place of vicious seascapes and jagged mountains, a land where the sun never shines and the mud-caked villages are cloaked in perpetual fog. Rodrigues, who fancies himself a Christ figure, and the more fearful Garrpe, find themselves waylaid in their search by attending to the needs of the Christian villagers who aid them, providing confession and baptizing babies.
It is easy to see how the man who adapted The Last Temptation of Christ was attracted to this material. In many ways, there are parallels here as Rodrigues endures his own passion. There are even Judas and Pontius Pilate surrogates here. But unlike Christ, who died for the sins of others, Rodrigues is forced to watch the deaths of numerous Christians because he is unflappable in his faith. It’s this battle between ego and divinity that fascinates Scorsese the most. For much of the film’s second half, we are trapped with a captured Rodrigues, enduring one scene of horror after another. Scorsese holds the audience close and like the people who cried out for mercy for Jesus, we ache for Rodrigues to make the killing stop and renounce his faith. But will he? Should he?
Silence refers to God’s silence while Rodrigues bears witness to all sorts of anguish and human suffering throughout the film. Captured by the grand inquisitor Inoue (Japanese comedian Issei Ogata in a role that is both comedic and horrific), Rodrigues must watch the torture and deaths of Christians, carnage that he can bring to an end by renouncing his faith. In many ways, these scenes are the culmination of decades of searching by Scorsese. Just how much violence can an audience take before looking away?
There is no correct way to view the central struggle in Silence. Scorsese, a self-avowed “lapsed Catholic,” understands both the folly and the courage of unshakeable faith. In the film’s coda, where Scorsese pulls us away from the main narrative and puts the audience in the perspective of a new character, we begin to understand how faith is a personal journey, one that should not be subjected to the influence and bullying of others. Whether it’s our notion of God or some of other belief, Silence is an experience that makes us question our own resolve and tremble at its power.