Silence is not a film you enjoy in the conventional sense of the word. Director Martin Scorsese’s long-developing adaptation of the 50-year-old novel by Shusako Endo (he first read the novel nearly 30 years ago and has struggled with it ever since) falls under many descriptions: endurance test, meditation, formal experiment, period piece, religious epic. It is all of those, but what it is most of all is a challenge both intellectually and physically to the viewer, much as the film itself unspools as a challenge to both those who made it and the characters who inhabit it.
That’s why this writer is still questioning his feelings about it, much like the missionaries at the center of the story are forced to question their deepest-held beliefs. One thing is for sure: what you take with you into Silence, more than most movies, determines very much what you take away from it. As someone who was born Catholic but whose family was only casually observant at best (church on holidays, except for weddings and funerals), and who came to despise both the Church and organized religion in general, I found myself wondering whose side I was on exactly, and why the two priests at the center of the story would submit themselves and others to needless and relentless suffering.
Perhaps that is why I came away from Silence feeling no empathy, and more than a little contempt, for Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), two Portuguese men of the cloth who travel to 17th century Japan to find out the fate of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who led the last Christian mission to the country but is missing and rumored to have renounced his faith. Rodrigues and Garrpe have to travel undercover, so to speak, because after a brief period where it was allowed and accepted, Christianity has been outlawed in Japan as an unwelcome foreign influence. Those found to practice it are tortured until they renounce their faith or are killed (or sometimes both, depending on the mood and relative sadism of the local officials).
Rodrigues and Garrpe plough blindly ahead when they reach the shores of Japan, firm in their convictions that Ferreira will be redeemed and that Christianity will again be ascendant in the country with their help. They find sanctuary and a congregation of sorts among the handful of small villages they visit where the “Kirishtans” keep their beliefs carefully hidden away. But there are traitors and opportunists in their midst as well, embodied by the prancing, jester-like Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who betrays the priests to the authorities and then begs Rodrigues to hear his confession. The government sees the Church’s emissaries as interlopers trying to press their views onto its people, a perspective that the film doesn’t entirely dismiss.
And yet, characters like Kichijiro and the local prefect who keeps Rodrigues prisoner (played with an exaggerated and sarcastic solicitousness by Issei Ogata) are portrayed rather broadly and almost comically at times. Additionally, their amorality undermines their own stance, not to mention the somber nature of the entire piece, and the tormented performances of Garfield and Driver. This jarring clash of tones is one of several issues that crop up as the film moves into its second half and central conflict, the persecution of Rodrigues as the Japanese attempt to force him to apostatize, or renounce his faith.
As the priest is forced to bear witness to men, women, and children being beheaded, drowned slowly, burned alive and hung upside down over pits with blood dripping from wounds in their necks (all mounted graphically but dispassionately), the question emerges: where is God’s voice in all this? And would you renounce your faith to save not just your own life, but the lives of innocent others?
To which the answer, at least to this viewer seems obvious: absolutely. But perhaps I feel that way because I strongly doubt whether anyone is “up there” listening, and am much more interested in saving lives on the ground right now than worrying about some hereafter that is most likely never going to come. Although Garfield and Driver give strong performances, you never really feel the power of their faith (unlike, say, Scorsese’s other great religious study, The Last Temptation of Christ, in which this non-believer was enthralled by Christ’s passion), because they never seem fully convinced of it either, and because Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks give them, at every turn, no reason to cling to that faith except for a kind of stubborn pride.
By the end, when Rodrigues’ worst fears about Ferreira are confirmed and he is subjected to one more grueling effort to get him to break, a kind of apathy sets in and you start to want Marty to just get it over with. A coda and final, semi-haunting shot are meant to throw the entire last third of the film into a new light, but it also doesn’t quite make its statement as powerfully as it could. But perhaps it’s not meant to; the ultimate strength of Silence may be that it’s a real-time argument between the filmmaker and himself over his own well-documented struggle with belief, and whether one side or another makes its case more persuasively is not really the point: the message seems to be that the debate will never truly be settled in this life.
So even though it’s flawed in some ways, Silence is a must-see for Scorsese completists and devotees, although casual fans may be confused that the kinetic, senses-blowing director of movies like Goodfellas and The Departed has made something this slow-burning and meditative. Others will relish the challenge and also luxuriate in nearly three hours of Rodrigo Prieto’s breathtaking cinematography and the jaw-dropping production design by Dante Ferretti, which brings feudal Japan to life in a way that is both majestic and yet alien and isolating. As for what it ultimately says, you may have to strain to hear it; it may be coming from the screen, from within yourself…or you may hear nothing at all.
Silence is in wide release now. This review was first published on Dec. 23, 2016.