Martin Scorsese once said that the two most important things in his life were “my art and my religion.” Nowhere has that been more evident than in Silence, a passion-project in every sense, written and rewritten by Scorsese over the course of 25 years. An intense study on faith, the human condition, and what it takes to reconcile the two, it is the iconic writer and director’s most personal and accomplished work in years.
Adapted from the 1966 novel Chinmoku by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo (which was filmed once before, by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971), Silence studies spiritual conviction and spiritual suffering in equal measure, as well as how they often go hand in hand.
Set in the year 1636, the movie follows two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), he feel moved to travel to Japan and uncover the fate of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), rumored to have renounced his faith.
The journey is driven as well as complicated by the persecution of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), Japanese Roman Catholics who were outlawed, hunted, and often tortured and executed for their beliefs by the Tokugawa shoguante. At the time, the island nation was grappling with the incursions of European traders and becoming increasingly isolationist; for Rodrigues and Garrpe, setting foot on Japanese soil as Westerners and clergy is an almost-certain death sentence. The flock of farmers and peasants they inherit is understandably terrified.
When they are inevitably captured by inquisitors, they are indeed made to suffer and urged to apostatize in order to save themselves and their followers. It’s a cunning, no-win situation devised to challenge the most ardent faith: It’s one thing to die for one’s beliefs, another to find glory and salvation when doing so results in the suffering and death of others. What would God ask of us if denying Him would spare those lives?
To his credit, Scorsese also makes an effort to present the Japanese point of view as well. Their world is alien to the foreigners who so arrogantly judge their culture without attempting to understand it. Rodrigues’ captors, represented by a shrewd translator (Tadanobu Asano) and a bemused Inquisitor General (an enjoyably eccentric Issey Ogata), engage in a battle of words and wills with the priest, who clings desperately to his faith, his prayers for guidance met with silence from God.
Garfield’s performance is uneven in early scenes, but ultimately delivers where it counts, especially in confrontation with Neeson’s wayward man of the cloth. The japanese cast members often steal the spotlight, however, especially the aforementioned Asano and Ogata, as well as Yosuke Kubozuka as a tragicomic Judas figure.
Silence makes an homage to master filmmakers from an equally accomplished one, as Scorsese channels the aesthetic of Kurosawa, Oshima, Mizoguchi, and others, with evocative compositions from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who list of credits is as impressive as it is extensive.
It’s also a meditative work — sometimes in the pejorative sense, as its 161-minute run time drags occasionally during the first act. Much as he did with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, Scorsese reflects upon matters of faith with artistic courage and finesse.