There’s a scene in The Wolf Of Wall Street that aptly sums up the moral outrage underpinning the whole film. It takes place after FBI agent Patrick Denhma visits filthy rich Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort on his luxury yacht. Denham (Kyle Chandler) has just had a wedge of dollar bills thrown at his back by a gloating Belfort, and the agent sits alone on a Manhattan subway, brooding. In this quiet moment, it’s possible to read all kinds of things in Denham’s face: the injustice of a universe that rewards a crook like Belfort while Denham, an honest working man, wears a cheap suit and rides the subway home. What kind of system allows people like Belfort to live in luxury?
Martin Scorsese’s latest film, the historical drama Silence, is like that sequence stretched to feature length. It’s about an overriding belief in the goodness of the almighty and of divine justice, and then having that certitude tested to its very limit. At what point does a person’s faith reach its breaking point?
At the start of the movie, set in the 17th century, Andrew Garfield’s Portuguese Jesuit priest, Rodrigues, is clear-eyed and idealistic. When he learns that his old mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith while doing the Lord’s work in Japan, Rodrigues reasons that the reports must be untrue; a man as devout as Ferreira, he thinks, would never reject God.
Along with fellow priest Garrpe (Adam Driver), Rodrigues goes to Japan to find Ferreira and save his tarnished reputation. But the country’s is in the grip of a fearsome inquisition, headed up by Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), which aims to expunge Christianity from its shores through torture and execution. Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive there eager to serve and thrilled at the fortitude of the faithful Japanese Christians – largely poor village folk – they find there. Gradually, however, their morale deserts them, and the film’s title begins to take on a disturbing new meaning: the silence is not just of a religious group quaking in its huts, fearful of being uncovered, but of God himself. Through all the pain and torment meted out by the inquisition, the Almighty’s silence remains deafening.
With cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese generates a deeply uneasy film of physical and psychological torment. Aerial shots in Rodrigues’ native Portugal suggest that God is in his heaven looking down and all is in its right place. The deeper Rodrigues journeys into Japan, the lower and closer the camera gets to its subjects; muddied, blooded hands gripping little wooden crosses, faces streaked with tears. In The Last Temptation Of Christ, Scorsese controversially imagined a very human messiah who struggles with the mental and physical frailties of his mortal body. In Silence, adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Scorsese very deliberately draws parallels between Rodrigues’ suffering and that of Christ; both are dragged into a hostile wilderness; both are jeered at and betrayed; both wind up openly questioning why God has abandoned them.
In the leading roles, Garfield and Driver are nigh-on faultless; initially devoted to their cause, their gaunt, increasingly haunted performances ground the film with startling rawness. Likewise Neeson in a smaller supporting turn that nevertheless hangs over the film from beginning to end – it’s refreshing to see him inhabit a character who’s forced to bear witness to horrific death and injury rather than inflict it, and his work here is superb. The flat-out, awe-inspiring brilliance of Issey Ogata as the grand inquisitor shouldn’t be ignored, though; urbane, half smiling, half smirking, he’s an extraordinary dramatic creation. The atrocities that occur under his watchful, smiling eyes are monstrous, but Ogata is too smart an actor to portray him as a simple monster. With his reedy, nasal voice, he’s unforgettable in every scene in which he appears.
Importantly, Silence isn’t one of those films that depicts the white guys as saviours and everyone else as villains. The Japanese heavies who operate under Masashige’s aegis are heartless, certainly, but the suffering they mete out is to their own people; other Japanese, often poor, penniless villagers, who’ve done nothing more than worship the ‘wrong’ deity. As in so many of Scorsese’s other films, from Mean Streets onwards, Silence isn’t interested in good and evil, but in the moral hinterland between them, and where God’s grace, goodness and justice might fit.
Silence is a philosophical film, and some of the questions it asks probably aren’t very fashionable in 2016 – hence, perhaps, Scorsese’s absence from this year’s Golden Globe nominations. Those questions include, but aren’t limited to: how often can a man sin and still be forgiven? If God exists, why does he allow us to suffer? Is it better to stand up for our values – whether religious or otherwise – or is martyrdom really an act of selfishness? Neither Rodrigues nor Scorsese offer immediate answers; they simply bear witness, and only hint at their own conclusions.
Running at 160 minutes and shot with the kind of austere elegance that recalls Malick or Tarkovsky, Silence is a rare beast to find lurking at your local multiplex. Cinema-goers who associate Scorsese with such films as Goodfellas and Taxi Driver may be infuriated by Silence’s calm understatement. In some stretches, it’s a movie that feels a little too glacial for its own good, yet these are matched by sequences which are as startling and mesmerising as anything else the director’s brought us over his long career. Scorsese has spent decades trying to get this most personal of movies onto the screen; that it exists at all is a reason to be thankful.
Silence is out in UK cinemas on the 1st January.