Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has spent most of his career presenting us with characters who, in any other movie, might be looked upon as the bad guys. But he gets us to invest in his morally compromised gangsters, crooked cops, mental defectives, and weaselly stockbrokers, and most often, something clicks in our brain that makes us care about their well being, even if they belong in prison for decades. Oddly enough, in Scorsese’s films focusing more squarely on questions of faith (THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, KUNDUN), he’s a little less ambiguous, usually landing squarely on the side of the the character with the strongest grip on his/her faith. However, with his latest, 30-years-in-the-making SILENCE, he pits one faith against another in an epic struggle to see if either side flinches at the promise of unparalleled agony (either in this life or the next) if they do not.
Working from a screenplay by Jay Cocks (Scorsese’s collaborator on THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and GANGS OF NEW YORK) and based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô, Scorsese unspools the 17th century tale of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), who hear about the disappearance of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), while doing missionary work in Japan. They are so distressed by the news and so convinced that the rumors of a priest who had begun living as a Japanese man are false that they venture into Japan at a time where to be Christian was effectively a death sentence. They sneak into Japan with the help of their own personal Judas, an untrustworthy ex-Christian named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who does end up delivering them to a small village of secretly faithful.
Before long, the two priests are separated and Rodrigues is captured by Japanese authorities, including a ruthless interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, probably best known to American audiences as Hogun in the Thor movies) and the powerful inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), whose squeaky voice and odd charm make him a standout role in the movie. The Japanese use a combination of torture, logic and blackmail to convince Rodrigues and his followers to renounce their faith, and the idea that this film’s primary effort is to present the story of a man struggling with his faith is a bit dishonest. It’s not so much the priest’s faith that is being tested but the limits of him being able to watch others be harmed because he won’t step on an image of Jesus or verbally abandon his God in the ultimate act of apostasy.
SILENCE may represent Scorsese’s own inner turmoil about his history with the Catholic church and his more recent interest in Buddhist teachings, but what actually happens in the film is more about endurance, both on the part of Rodigues and the audience. I rarely criticize a film for being too long, and I’m certainly not doing that here, but make no mistake: you feel every minute of time passing. And perhaps that’s the point. There comes a certain point in the torture process where the victim simply gives up and says what the torturer wants to hear. And we get a sense that the priest is being subjected to just such a process, and so is the audience to some degree.
While the inclination is to demonize the torturers in just about any situation, it’s impossible and reckless to dismiss certain Japanese characters as monsters. Scorsese wisely reminds us that the Portuguese are the intruders in this land, and the Japanese are simply protecting the culture and sovereignty of their nation—the same way any Christian nation might, especially at the time. Very few elements in SILENCE are cut and dry, and in the shadow of the Inquisition, these priests would be aware that torture was not considered an outrageous conversion method. But those are also some of the most difficult and more fascinating parts of the movie, and I’m fairly certain Scorsese would agree since he spends an alarming amount of time focusing on some fairly unique brands of torment and agony.
There’s no disputing that SILENCE is a beautiful film, thanks to Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork, which does everything cameras in Scorsese films don’t usually do. They linger, they take in the environment, they don’t swoop through a scene. Instead, they gently pull in and out of moments until we are completely aware of what we’re seeing, and sometimes those revelations are terrifying, while remaining stunning examples of cinematography. Sometimes the most difficult thing for an editor to do is not cut and cut and cut, and with SILENCE, master editor Thelma Schoonmaker is the primary reason so many individual moments work so well. She allows us to exist in the drama until the tension or emotional centrifuge surrounds us.
In truth, SILENCE would have been a more interesting piece if it had been told from the perspective of the Japanese characters, both the secret Christians and the oppressive government officials, because the true conflict exists between those groups. The priests—and yes, Driver’s Garrpe does eventually return to the fold—are essentially pests to the Japanese, even if Scorsese wants their presence in this foreign land to mean something more. One of the most important and impressive sequences comes when Father Ferreira finally enters the story. What he has become and the way in which Neeson delivers his lines with almost too much conviction is wonderful and surprisingly subtle.
I don’t think there’s anyway to get around the fact that the final scenes in SILENCE (especially the last shot) are puzzling and disappointing, but there’s at least a point to them, and if that’s important to you, perhaps you’ll find them less frustrating than I did. Not entirely on purpose, I sat through SILENCE twice in one week, and I discovered that it’s not a film that was more interesting upon additional viewings. But it is a film that is worthy of—and will likely inspire—a great deal of discussion, contemplation, debate, and yes, even criticism. And it may be the movie I most enjoyed talking about with others in 2016, simply because no two takes on it are the same. I live for movies that inspire such passion and spirited talk; so on that level, SILENCE certainly works.