I’m always a little concerned when I hear that a film is a director’s long gestating passion project. Even when the filmmaker in question is Martin Scorsese, there is always the frightening possibility of a bloated, self-indulgent epic. Rest assured though, for this was a Passion worth waiting for.
Based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find their mentor. Word has reached them of the persecution of Christians in Japan. The Inquisitor for the Shogunate is torturing and executing Christians unless they renounce their faith. Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) have been told that their mentor Father Ferreira was tortured until he apostatised.
They set off to find Ferreira (Liam Neeson), and on the way discover the “Hidden Christians” – the small communities of Japanese Roman Catholics, living in hiding and practicing their faith in secret. It is here, where the devotion is so strong, that Rodrigues and Garupe begin to feel the weight of God’s silence. How can these people have been so abandoned by their God? Are they praying to nothing?
Religion features heavily in nearly all of Scorsese’s films, from the Last Temptation of Christ, and Kundun, to his rogue’s gallery of guilty catholic gangsters. But they were only high school essays compared to Silence, which is the full PhD thesis of faith, guilt, despair, and redemption.
Even its most surface elements, the visuals, are imbued with a sublime majesty. This is not just a well lit and beautifully shot film, this is the visual poetry of faith. The use of God’s eye cinematography, contrasted with extreme close ups of anguished or ecstatic faces, and filthy and bloodied hands gripping crosses and beads, passionately evokes what it means to risk your life for your religion. It’s almost impossible not to be reminded of the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Garfield and Driver deliver tremendous, and utterly believable performances. It would be fair to say that their Portuguese accents do more than a little wavering at times, but such details are shrugged off by the sheer intensity they bring to the roles. As the devout and bloody-minded Rodrigues, it is a career best turn from Andrew Garfield.
When the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) captures Rodrigues, a battle for his soul ensues. How much is he willing to suffer, and allow others to suffer, in the name of a God who has no place in this land? Scorsese does not hold back on either side of the argument, calling into question the actions of the Church, specifically the missionaries, whose ignorance of other cultures, and arrogance of their own beliefs caused so much suffering and bloodshed.
Likewise, he pulls no punches in depicting the vile methods used by the Shogunate to rid Japan of the Christians. The slow tortures, the beheadings, scaldings, drownings, crucifixions, and cruel torments, designed to degrade and tear a man from his faith.
Silence is by no means an easy watch, and anyone expecting the usual experience of a Scorsese film – flashy visuals, pop music soundtrack, snappy editing – will be disappointed. But this is a film that the director of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver couldn’t have made. This is a film that only someone who has lived his whole life could have brought to the screen. Transcending all of his previous work, Scorsese emerges at 74, with a film that stands alongside the likes of Bergman and Tarkovsky. It is a work of art. One of the very best of 2017.