When Scorsese came out with Wolf of Wall Street a few years ago he showed everyone that even at 70 he had the energy and the madness to fuel a 3 hour mess of excess and still have it be one of his best works. Now in 2016 Scorsese slows things down in order to return to a passion project of his, Silence based on the 1966 novel of the same name, a story about Jesuit Priests who travel to 17th Century Japan to spread the word of Christianity only to be met with suffering and persecution. Scorsese’s past in the priesthood is well-documented and the fact that he’s been trying for this project off the ground for 25 years means that this was always going to be an experience worth having.
Set in 1640 during a time in Japan when Christianity is outlawed under penalty or torture and death, a church in Portugal receives word that one of their own, Father Ferreira, has denounced God and given up the faith. Ferreira’s two apprentices, Rodrigues and Garrpe, refuse to believe the slander against their master and offer to travel to Japan themselves to find Ferreira and spread the word of Christianity.
After securing a guide in the form of drunken Kichjiro the pair make the journey to Japan, their arrival is met by a village of hidden Christian, peasant farmers hiding their faith from The Inquisitor. Shocked at how the Christians are treated like animals yet still retain their faith in the belief that their suffering will gain them access to Paradise, Rodrigues and Garrpe agree to act as Priests to them and any of the neighbouring villages. However with the increasing violence against Christians becoming an ever present danger for them, Rodrigues and Garrpe separate with Rodrigues going to Kichjiro’s village, only to find it deserted.
I don’t want to go too further into the story, not for fear of spoilers but because the film’s slow-burn nature means that the real plot of the film doesn’t kick off until over an hour in. What starts as the search for a lost mentor becomes a tale of one man’s crisis of faith trying to save a country that doesn’t want to be saved, it’s not pro-Christian or anti-Christian, instead taking on the views of someone who has followed the word of God their entire life but from a place of safety and now has to see it from a place of persecution. Once Rodrigues becomes the central character we follow his journey as he starts to question his own faith, wondering if God can exist when such cruelty is allowed to happen to his own Children, it’s a lot more challenging than I’m making it out to be with that doubt in Rodrigues mind acting as a slowly forming seed that grows with every new atrocity he sees yet shrinks whenever he’s reminded of the love that God has for his people. It’s a complicated film but one that allows its audience to follow Rodrigues through this terrible journey, put us into his mindset and asks us not to put ourselves in his shoes, but to understand what he’s going through.
Acting is stellar throughout, Liam Neeson has a smaller role than you’d think but his presence is felt throughout leading to a great one-on-one scene with him and Garfield that’s possibly the best scene in the film. I will say I think Adam Driver got shafted as Garrpe, because Rodrigues is the main character when he and Garrpe split up we don’t see him again for a long time and until that point he was serving as a fine fail to Rodrigues, growing more and more impatient with how they were forced to hide like beasts. Of course the counterpoint to this is that had Garrpe be a bigger character then it would’ve removed from the personal nature of the story, plus there’s a cruel irony to how he and Rodrigues switch character arcs by the end.
While there were a lot of Japanese Christians who helped Rodrigues and Garrpe the real standouts were the villains, in particular Issay Ogata as Inoue, The Inquisitor and Tadanobu Asano as The Interpreter. Inoue is the main villain of the film – outside of Rodrigues own self-doubt – and while he doesn’t have an active role he still makes a strong impression as this elderly, intelligent leader of the movement against Christianity. While he is cruel in his torture, listening to him talk you can see he doesn’t see himself as the villain, he believes that Christianity is a weed that has no place in Japan and wants to stamp it out before it causes any more trouble, he believes in what he’s doing for the good of his country rather than any personal vendetta. The Interpreter follows this mantra, even treating Rodrigues with respect during their initial encounter, acting as the go-between for Rodrigues and Inoue, making sure nothing is lost in translation. Because of this he’s put into a unique position where he’s able to play mind games with Rodrigues, planting those seeds of doubt and suffering, quietly blaming him for all the violence brought against the Christian people because he refuses to give up his faith. It’s almost insidious because The Interpreter never does any actively evil but he just leaves a bad taste in your mouth through what he says and the confidence he says it with, you hate him but you can never pinpoint why.
One of the characters who never sets on either hero or villain is Kichijirio, played by Yosuke Kubozuka. When we first meet him he’s a drunken runaway looking to find a way back home and refusing to admit his Christianity for fear of torture, but as we find out his drunkenness is the result of a tragic encounter with The Inquisitor, one where his self-survival skills overcome his own religious worth and cost him dearly. Kichijirio is an odd character because he starts as comic relief, turns into tragic figure, but there’s more to him and not all of it good, not to spoil where he goes but by the end of the film he becomes one of the defining factors in Rodrigues questioning of God’s existence due to how often he is required to forgive someone like Kichijirio who most likely doesn’t even deserve forgiveness in the first place. It’s an interesting character and a great subversion of the drunken lout actually being a devout hero.
The standout here is Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues, after a few years as Spider-Man we’re finally seeing him live up to that talent he showcased in Social Network and between this and Hacksaw Ridge – which funnily is also about a Christian Soldier getting shit on – he looks set to prove himself. At the start of the film Rodrigues plays the more openly accepting priest as opposed to Garrpe’s cautious one, his shock over how the Christians are treated is matched only by his will to help them practise their faith. But once the Christians start dying to keep him safe he begins to suffer guilt over his inability to save them, of course in doing so he’d get them killed anyway so damned if you do. That guilt is what fuels Rodrigues through the rest of this film and why he starts questioning God, why would God allow such brutal suffering to be inflicted on his people, why would he allow people to die by the thousands and not show any sign of stopping it, it’s a question that plagues Rodrigues and us, the audience, for the majority of the film.
However there is a slight counterpoint to this that Rodrigues doesn’t see and it defines him as a character, he’s too proud. Proud of his Christianity, proud of his definite nature, proud to be a martyr if need be, too proud to see that for the Japanese, Christianity is all they have, their faith is what drives them forward, their belief that for all their suffering they will be rewarded for never losing faith, it’s why most of them refuse to give it up even at the cost of their own lives. For someone like Rodrigues it’s not so much that he can’t fathom that thinking – like I said he’s more than willing to become a martyr – it’s that he can’t understand why these people put their faith in him. He, as a messenger of God, is the reason the Japanese are being persecuted and through him God is suppose to save them, but he can never save them, in fact they are often tortured and killed because of him, so if he can’t, does that mean God can’t and if God can’t does that mean that he won’t or is he there to save them at all. Garfield’s performance is layered and nuanced with how he’s able to take this faithful man through his crisis and show his belief ebb and flow through doubt and conviction, the few emotional outbursts he has – his meeting with Ferreira, a difficult mass drowning – feel like they’ve been worked up over the entire film leading up to where he can longer hold back any longer.
What’s noticeable almost instantly for this Scorsese film is that it doesn’t feel like a Scorsese film, at least not his most well-known films, I’ve not seen Last Temptation or Kundun so I can’t speak for his religious feature but having grown up on Gangster, Taxi Drivers and Boxing Bastards this felt completely different to anything I’ve seen from him, there’s no Rolling Stones, no excessive cursing and aside from one scene no blood, quite a bit of violence but very little blood. In a way though it’s a lot more disturbing because of the violence that’s being shown, it’s all slowly drawn out, driving the nail home about the atrocities committed against these people, being dripped with boiling water, crucified at sea to let the rising tide drown them, hung upside down and cut on the side of the neck so they slowly bleed to death, more than one instance of being burned alive and that’s only the ones that stand out, this is probably one of the toughest films Scorsese has ever made, never flinching from just how horrid it was to live as a Christian during a time when Christianity was outlawed.
Despite this though Scorsese is careful to balance the views of Christianity from both sides, The Inquisitor may be cruel but like I said we are able to see where he stands, that Christianity is a weed that has no place in Japan and honestly there is evidence to support this, the fact that some Japanese value religious artefacts with such reverence more than actual faith, that more than a few of them have misinterpreted the bible’s teachings and that most of the Christians are peasant farmers looking for a higher power to explain their situations while the more well-off citizens believe in Buddha who – in Christianity’s eyes – is just a man. On the other side though, those that have faith in God have so completely selflessly, their belief is so strong that they will endure any manner of punishment to hold on to that belief, as Rodrigues points out Christianity did initially have a place in Japan but it was man like Inoua who poisoned that belief until it was outlawed. Christian films are becoming more and more popular but they always show Christianity as the be-all, end-all of life, Scorsese recognises that that’s not the case, that Christianity is flawed and puts them on show here, Rodrigues wasn’t the first to preach Christianity to the Japanese but it’s through his doubt that we get a clearer picture, that men like Rodrigues have brought the faith to Japan and now those who can’t defend themselves are being punished for it. But it’s through their faith, through their devotion and love for God that they can take the pain, Rodrigues never comes to terms with their suffering but he’s never given the chance to, at every turn his faith is tested and questioned without him ever remembering the basis of his own religion, that Jesus suffered for mankind, that He knows better than anyone what it’s like to be persecuted and tortured in the name of faith. Christianity is never seen as the source of evil but for all the problems it’s brought to Japanese people the underlying order of love and peace still stands within them.
I’m probably not the best person to try and describe this, I’m not a religious man but I can’t deny the effect Silence had on me, Scorsese has crafted perhaps his most mature movie to date with every question hitting hard and never giving a definitive answer. It’s an ugly movie about an ugly period of history – actually that’s not even fair, the movie is gorgeous with the cinematography being some of the most poetic Scorsese has ever done – but it’s a time worth knowing about with persecution of all religions still occurring worldwide, the time period is nothing but a placeholder for the larger story at hand. Garfield’s career best performance might anchor the whole thing down but this is sure to be one of the most discussed and relevant of Scorsese’s works.
4 out of 5 hairpieces