Like a good deal of Martin Scorsese’s films, Silence handles the subject of faith in a complex and humanistic way; the legendary American filmmaker transmutes the torment, humiliation and suffering of two young, idealistic Jesuit priests, by the fiendish censors of Feudal Japan, into a deeper, more puzzling question about the nature of faith and God itself. The violence depicted in Scorsese’s films are often punishing and unbridled, normally involving unforgiving acts committed by men with no concept of sin or guilt, but Silence—which feature peaceful, pacifistic men of the cloth—becomes a particularly gruesome and unsettling study of violence as endurance and intolerance. Filmed with stunning patience and textured surrealism (evoking his progenitors Kurosawa and Mizoguchi) Scorsese has never seemed more aware of his subjects’ pain.
Scorsese demonstrates time and again how religion has been the crux to understanding the morality (and immorality) of history’s great ethical conflicts. The great American director, no stranger to the subject of martyrs and tyrants, makes a strong case for both, defining how their roles in history have established the foundation of contemporary ethos. Silence individualizes the cultural atrocities associated with religion, containing them in an intimate cross-examination of faith, where both bodies and souls are tested for spiritual and somatic obstinacy. Silence is an experience, both devastating and sublime, in which forbearance and contemplation become its own rewards.
The ill-fated voyage of two young Jesuits is captured with a strikingly ominous composure; imprisoning our eyes in the hostile world of Feudal Japan is the leering, uninviting camerawork of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. His expansive and claustrophobic vistas into an unfamiliar time allow us to witness, in patience, the horrors dispensed on the poor souls unstintingly resolved to die for their faith. The opening scene occurs in the hellish hot-springs of Japan, where Catholic priest Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) bears witness to hellfire in the form of searing liquid. The images of ghostly mists and the gargoyle-like Japanese censors are equal-parts ethereal and terrifying. The Jesuit priests crucified here are only a few out of hundreds (maybe thousands) of “believers” who Japan’s shogunate both fear and hate. That fact does not dissuade the idealism of priests Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) who set out on a voyage to salvage their old mentor from damnation.
Silence is undeniably slow moving but it’s also forceful and uniquely persuasive, pressing viewers to withstand, agonize and witness the cruelty inflicted upon Japan’s underground Christian circles. Scorsese doesn’t simply exercise the miserablism in their torment, but excavates it for dramatic depth. Rodrigues and Garupe come to Japan only to become perplexed by moral quandaries which surpass their pious compassion. An indelibly off-putting Issey Ogata plays the film’s Godless judge, the Inquisitor—a notoriously slimy character with ghoulish white-hair and a poised devil smile. The Inquisitor is an old samurai tasked with smothering the flame of Christianity in Japan. His cunning in politics and warfare allows him to confine the priests in an ethical quagmire where the veracity of God’s word becomes a never ending and unanswerable dilemma.
The theme of a “silent God” (extricated from the source novel) is denoted with remarkable ethical complexity in the film. It feels uncomfortably and inexorably akin to Martin Scorsese’s own personal mire with faith. But it’s Scorsese’s utter refusal to provide answers and concessions toward his characters’ noble and destructive paths which give depth to the film’s dramatic blueprints. Andrew Garfield, in what is perhaps his most psychologically demanding role, plays with piety, naivety and inner-conflict with an expected grace, but what truly allows him to soar is watching how the actor forges the rejection of God’s absence into a recognizable, human despair. Garfield eloquently embodies (through stoic voice-over, gesture and assertiveness) his trials with terrifying uncertainty.
The film’s numerous ethical catch-22s almost satirizes the contradictions of Christian morality, but Scorsese’s struggle, an irresolvable and torturous gridlock, feels more like a devilish torment of existential uncertainty than one of social commentary. It’s in the moment when Rodrigues’ abject faith in God is mutated into a moral reckoning of do-or-die that we see Scorsese foster a fiery inquest of his own reckoning. The play between religious morality and moral objectivism, two entities that refuse to coexist (lest one betrays the other) seems to be the very essence of humanity’s futile search for serenity amongst the chaos of social order.
The simplicity of Rodrigues’ fateful “choice”, and its torrid (beautifully unsubtle) colour palette of fire and brimstone, evoke a religious impasse, but it’s Rodrigues’ utter refusal to choose between the suffering of his disciples and their freedom which remind us that even God is burdened with authority.
The concept of right and wrong have never felt so absent in a film in which morality and human decency make-up its core. In a sense, Scorsese has been confronting similar “moment-of-truths” his entire career: Whether it’s Mean Street’s Charlie forced to choose between earthly riches or spiritual freedom; or Last Temptation’s Judas asked to betray Jesus at Gethsemane; or Goodfella’s Henry Hill placed on the stand to inculpate his crime family in order to save his real one. The protagonists of Scorsese’s films have always been marked by demands which confront their sinful ways.
Silence discovers a similar impasse but interestingly not in Rodrigues—who is for the most part unstintingly devout and compassionate—but in the tragedy of Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a drunk, Japanese expatriate who Rodrigues and Garupe initially seek out in order to find a passage from Macau to Japan. Kichijiro, like many of Scorsese’s tragic anti-heroes, is a Christian who oscillates between the exultant promises of heaven and the tangible and immediate riches of the material world. He and Rodrigues share a relationship throughout the film built on contempt, but it’s only when the young priest comes to understand Kichijiro, after years patience, forgiveness and wisdom, Scorsese finally seems find a lasting resolve.