Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Although this is just the third time in his illustrious career, after The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, that Scorsese has depicted a centrally religious story, one need only look at his other movies to see how strongly the themes and symbols of Silence resonate in his filmography. In the many gangster films and thrillers that he is best known for directing, Scorsese has depicted such themes as sin, perdition, weakness, hypocrisy, reckoning and deliverance and has done so with great artistry and conviction. In Silence however, a film that was decades in the making and clearly a passion project of his, these themes are confronted in a challenging, relentless, punishing way unlike anything he has made before. Scorsese has basically made a career out of displaying the dark side of people and the violence they inflict, but this is a film that cuts on an entirely deeper, more emotional level. This picture is ruthless, demanding and excruciating and it is one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. If Scorsese could be regarded as the American Kurosawa (in terms of prestige and significance to cinema), then Silence is his Ran.
Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) leave Portugal for feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is believed that Ferreira has forsaken his vows after being tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a rumour that the two priests desperately hope will prove to be unfounded. They reach the island with the help of the drunken fisherman Kichijiro (Yösuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian undergoing a crisis of faith, and find the village of Tomogi where the townsfolk worship the Christian faith in secret. The arrival of the priests proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the villagers as they are now able to receive sacraments but are also now in danger of being discovered by the Japanese authorities who have been tasked with purging Christianity from their land. As the Japanese Christians suffer torment and death at the hands of the samurais, the two priests can only watch helplessly in silence until they too are finally captured. As captives of the Japanese governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the priests are subjected to unimaginable pain as their faith is put to the ultimate test.
As these two priests are tortured and bear witness to the torture of others they are forced to ask themselves painful questions, only to find themselves woefully without answers. How much suffering can a man endure to preserve his faith and how much should he have to endure in the name of his merciful, benevolent God? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others continue to suffer or to renounce one’s faith so that they might be spared? However brutal and barbaric the Japanese people’s methods are, are they right to view this Western religion as a corrosive influence on their own culture? Scorsese doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions nor does he ever try to provide one. There is no secret answer to the tests these priests are forced to go through, there is no divine inspiration or enlightened resolve; there is only helpless screaming and futile protest, followed by silence. The film does not condemn or condone, it doesn’t judge or absolve, and it doesn’t vilify or idolise. It creates a severely authentic and mesmerising experience for the audience that allows them to understand the thoughts and emotions behind these questions. The point isn’t to provide viewers with the answers; it’s to fuel their contemplation.
It takes a master director to create this kind of cinematic experience and there are few, living or dead, who deserve that title more than Scorsese. Another director might have opted to display the violent content of this film graphically, loudly and up close in order to try and create a more visceral experience, the way Mel Gibson did for instance in his own tale of religious violence, The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese however shows that some scenes can be even more emotionally devastating and unbearable when exercising restraint. Distance is used to emphasise helplessness and the absence of a divine presence. A slow pace is used to heighten the tension and prolong the agony. Silence is used to drive home the cruel finality of death and the unfeeling indifference of the world these characters inhabit. Scorsese goes beyond spectacle to create an engrossing, authentic, emotional experience. This isn’t a movie that the viewer watches; it is one that they endure and are affected by.
Silence is certainly a difficult film to watch which is why it likely won’t get the same level of popularity as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, if time is kind to this film and it gets hailed as a classic years from now, maybe it will earn the same level of esteem and commemoration as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It definitely deserves to. The film is utterly gut wrenching and truly profound. It certainly feels like more of a personal film for Scorsese than many of his most recent projects, as if he himself has been undergoing a deeply intense crisis of faith in the decades it has taken him to complete this film. With all of the horrific trials, tribulations and atrocities he portrays and the tortuously confounding nature of the questions raised, I can only imagine the amount of soul searching Scorsese must have gone through while making this picture. The result is one of the most magnificent and enigmatic films of his prolific career and certainly one of the best films of 2016.