Like a good deal of Martin Scorsese’s films, Silence handles the subject of faith in a complex and humanistic way; Scorsese transmutes the torment, humiliation and suffering of two young, idealistic Jesuit priests, by the fiendish censors of Feudal Japan, into a deeper, more puzzling question about the nature of faith and God itself. The violence depicted in Scorsese’s films are often punishing and unrestrained, normally involving unforgiving acts committed by men with no concept of sin or guilt, but Silence—which feature peaceful, pacifistic men of the cloth—becomes a particularly gruesome and unsettling study of violence as endurance and intolerance. The film is in and of itself a trial of endurance and tolerance, filmed with stunning patience and agonizing naturalism, Scorsese has never been more aware of his subjects’ anguish.
Religion has been the crux to understanding the morality (and immorality) of great ethical conflicts. Scorsese, no stranger to the subject of martyrs or tyrants, makes a strong case for both and how their roles in history have molded the foundation of contemporary moral ethos. Silence individualizes the cultural atrocities associated with religion, containing them in an intimate cross-examination of faith.
Scorsese films the young Jesuit’s journey with striking composure; utterly captivating us in his world of Feudal Japan is the leering camerawork of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, whose point of view shots allow us to witness, in patience, the horrors dispensed on those unstintingly resolved to die for their faith. The opening scene occurs in the hellish hot-springs of Japan, where Catholic priest Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) bears witness to hellfire in the form of searing liquid. The images of ghostly mists and the gargoyle-like Japanese censors are equal-parts ethereal and terrifying. The Jesuit priests crucified here are only a few out of hundreds (maybe thousands) of “believers” who Japan’s shogunate both fear and hate. That fact does not deter the idealism of priests Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) who set out on a voyage to salvage Ferreira, their old mentor, from damnation.
Silence is slow moving but forceful, pressing viewers to withstand, agonize and witness the cruelty inflicted upon the Christians in his film. Scorsese doesn’t simply exercise miserablism but excavates it for dramatic depth. Rodrigues and Garupe come to Japan only to become perplexed by moral quandaries which surpass their pious compassion. An indelibly off-putting Issey Ogata plays the film’s Godless judge, the Inquisitor—a notoriously slimy character with ghoulish white-hair and a poised devil smile. The Inquisitor is an old samurai tasked with smothering the flame of Christianity in Japan. The Inquistor’s cunning in politics and warfare allows him to confine the priests in an ethical quagmire where the veracity of God’s word becomes a never ending and unanswerable dilemma.
The theme of a “silent God” (extricated from the source novel) is denoted with remarkable ethical complexity in the film, presenting itself as inexorably akin to Scorsese’s own complications with faith (himself being a “lapsed-Catholic”). But it’s Martin Scorsese’s complete refusal to render us with answers or solutions toward the morality of his characters which ingrain and enrich the film’s drama. Andrew Garfield, in what is perhaps his most psychologically demanding role, plays with piety, naivety and inner-conflict with an expected grace, but what truly allows his talent to soar is watching how the young actor forges the internalized devastation of being shunned by God into a recognizable, human despair. Garfield eloquently and harrowingly embodies (through voice-over, physical expression and meditation) everything Silence is about spiritually and humanely.
Out of all the moralistic dilemmas in the film perhaps one moment stands out the most and that being the film’s climax, where Rodrigues’ abject faith is mutated into a stomach-turning moral reckoning. It’s a remarkable play on the inquest between human and religious morality. And yet, beneath the searing drama and underlying the fire and brimstone color palette, are deeper, more profound consequences—such as the implication that human dignity can only be retained through the God’s destruction.
The concept of right and wrong have never felt so absent in a film in which morality and human decency make-up its fundamental thematic components. In a sense, Scorsese has been confronting similar “moment-of-truths” his entire career: Whether it’s Charlie forced to choose between the enrichment of his ambition or the desertion of his friends; or Travis Bickle’s annihilation of an underground sex traffickers; or Judas asked to betray Jesus at Gethsemane; or Henry Hill placed on the stand to inculpate his crime family. The protagonists of Scorsese’s films have always been marked by demands which confronted their lapsed morality head-on.
Silence finds a similar premise but interestingly not in Rodrigues—who is for the most part unstintingly devout and compassionate—but in the tragic character arc of Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a drunk, Japanese expatriate who Rodrigues and Garupe initially seek out in order to find a passage from Macau to Japan. Kichijiro, like many of Scorsese’s tragic anti-heroes, is a Christian who oscillates between the exultant promises of heaven and the hedonistic riches of the material world. He and Rodrigues share a relationship throughout the film which is innately complex and troubled, but once the young priest comes to understand him, influenced by years of patience and similar toil, we start to understand the eternal confusion, and everlasting compassion, that faith ingrains to our souls.
Silence is dismal, challenging, deliberate, hard-to-watch and, like most great films, Silence is an experience that must first be endured before one truly grasps it.