Silence marks the third film in a specific genre of Scorsese movies, those that abandon the mean streets of gangsterdom and criminality for the overtly spiritual, following 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Kundun. Based on the 1966 book of the same name, authored by Shusaku Endo, the film is a masterful combination of tone, theme, and cinema – among Scorsese’s finest.
The story, set primarily in and around Nagasaki, concerns the plight of two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), in search of their lost mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Though the marketing set the film as a sort of rescue mission, wherein we would follow the two priests in their fraught attempts to extract their captured companion from the anti-Christian Japanese, the narrative takes a very different focus, with Neeson’s character being off-screen for most of the runtime. Instead, Rodrigues and Garupe spend most of the first hour or so of the film among the Japanese Christians, helping them in their faith and establishing a sort of sub rosa church to cater for their atypical flock, as it were. In this section of the film some important themes are established, such as the earnest aims of the two priests in educating, and indeed saving the Japanese on a metaphysical level. The audience are also granted a glimpse of the tortures those who refuse to apostatise would suffer, viscerally establishing a sense of jeopardy that will underlie the entirety of Silence’s near three hour runtime.
After this establishing section the main conceits of the film are introduced, showing its true strengths. These primarily concern the eponymous silence of God, the morality of suffering (which would have been a suitable name for the film too), and the conception of faith itself. These are mainly explored through Rodrigues, who witnesses the great pains the Japanese suffer rather than apostatising, in this case meaning a rather innocuous action – stepping on a fumi-e, a Japanese image of Christ. Throughout he finds himself encouraging others to deny Christ to save themselves, yet he resists doing so himself, even when others are to suffer at this decision. At its essence this questions the truth of Christianity – whether to imitate Christ, and suffer as he might, even be martyred – or to allow personal transgression, as it is for that that Jesus died. Andrew Garfield excellently portrays the internal strife his character suffers as he is constantly made voyeur to the barbarism enacted against his co-religionists; in one scene his prison design is altered from that in the book to give Rodrigues a clear view of executions taking place just beyond, with the slitted design casting doubtful shadows on his face. This leads to his questioning of God in total, even calling out why he should be so silent if he existed, and for a while the film begins to travel along a path more accustomed to in a Bergman film, though Scorsese, the devout who might have been a priest in another life, takes us to a different conclusion. In Silence, God is to be found in less obvious places.
Another key interaction is when Rodrigues finally meets Ferreira, who has more or less gone native and denounced Christianity in favour of a Japanese life. Here they discuss the nature of Christianity with Ferreira suggesting that misconception and miscommunication have led to Japanese Christians not believing in what the Portuguese would understand as Christianity, but a strange pagan corruption – an example given is that ‘son of God’ was mistranslated as ‘sun of God’. So leading to the Japanese allegedly worshipping the sun in the name of Deus. Ferreira puts this down to an inherent difference in thought process, a difference that would leave the Japanese forever incompatible with Christianity, and so corroborates with the theory of the cruel Inquisitor, Inoue, that Japan was a ‘swamp’ wherein no foreign ideas could thrive. Rodrigues interestingly counters this orientalist (as far as Ferreira is concerned) rhetoric by reiterating the universality of Christianity, how one truth must be true for all people, and so Scorsese establishes the age old basis for equality under God, a factor of Christianity too often ignored by its adherents. This scene, captured in quite traditional shot-reverse-shot, is essentially a theological disputation but is directed and written so as not to make it feel contrived – the exchange is exciting, interesting, and natural. This contrasts, for example, with the forced nature of dialogue when transmitting similar ideas in Scorsese’s own Last Temptation of Christ, which felt designed to be didactic for its audience as opposed to being a conflict for its characters, although the blame for that might lie with its source material.
Some of the ideas here lead on to one of the main criticisms of Silence, that it essentially heroicises colonial agents, who were themselves attempting to oppress the Japanese through Christianity as an imperial tool. The Guardian’s John Patterson said ‘Christianity is one of the Big Bs of violent colonial intrusion,’ implying that is what we were being shown. However, this is a misreading of the film wherein de facto history or personal ideology distort Scorsese’s actual vision. Key to this is the presentation of the priests in question as earnest in their faith and in their wishing to spread their truth to Japan – much of the first hour is spent making this clear. Rodrigues and Garupe were not sent by the Portuguese government, nor the Jesuit order, to subvert the Japanese nor ready them for external conquest or infiltration – they travelled there to deliver God’s word. Scorsese himself was very aware of the historical relation of Christianity with violent colonialism in East Asia but rightly claimed in an interview with Film Comment that the Jesuits had a ‘well-intentioned but insensitive zeal’ – the key being the intention. Even if Jesuits like those shown in the film might have laid the groundwork for colonial action, it doesn’t mean they were doing so willingly nor does it in any way make this film a celebration of imperialism but rather celebrates faith and missionary work, which are not inherently synonymous with colonialism.
In fact a few scenes in the film deal with these problems of the Jesuit mission, such as one of Rodrigues’ imprisoners making the point that the priests expected their followers to learn some Portuguese, while they learnt very little Japanese, and how little the priests knew of Japan and its beliefs. This relates both to Scorsese’s claim of insensitivity and the character’s appeal to universal truth – if there is only one truth, why learn about something that isn’t that? Later Rodrigues finds himself interrogated by Inoue, the Inquisitor, and he proclaims he does not intend to bring the Portuguese flag (one of many vying for influence in Japan, as Inoue claims), but the one truth. While not convincing in a political sense, it is clearly honest personally. There is even a point when, as doubt filled his mind, Rodrigues exclaimed ‘I’m just a foreigner who brought disaster,’ an acknowledgement of the pain caused to many of the native Japanese due to Christian intervention in that country. But when juggled with his genuine belief that without spreading the Gospel the Japanese will be damned in the next life his dilemma regarding suffering becomes keener – it isn’t simply a question of leaving well alone for a Jesuit in the 17th century. But the morality of causing such suffering as they did is nonetheless troubling to both the priest and the viewer.
The film itself is crafted beautifully, in all aspects. Most noticeable is the cinematography and framing, which reminds you of the Japanese greats who inspired Scorsese’s venture. One such memory is communicated through the use of fog, both to obscure oncoming foes (as in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) and in one scene shrouding a boat, essentially quoting Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. Even beyond this physical aspect the depth and classical framing of the shots call back to the likes of Ozu, yet another giant of 50s Japan. As Scorsese himself concedes, ‘I can’t shoot nature of roof tiles the way Kobayashi did’ and it is true that physical spaces are not captured in the style of typical Japanese cinema. But nonetheless cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures every frame wonderfully. This is helped by the lush green colour of the Japanese forests contrasting with the dark sands and white fogs seen elsewhere; a lot of Scorsese’s visual trademarks are missing here, mainly due to the setting, but it’s more than made up for. Another missing trademark Scorsese feature is the soundtrack, and not only the dadrock, but any soundtrack at all – besides some ambient instruments the only music heard it diegetic folk music and Christian hymns. Not only does this smugly mirror the film’s name but also matches its austere and contemplative atmosphere excellently. The cast are also worth a mention, as they all perform as well as could be wanted, especially Garfield as the lead, but also Driver, Ciaran Hinds and Neeson, though in smaller supporting roles. On the Japanese side, Issey Ogata’s Inoue is a surprising highlight – rather than playing him as stern or ruthless, Ogata instead injects a fair amount of visual comedy and some light-natured mannerisms. His character remains intimidating, but not according to any generic conventions, and makes for an interesting change of pace when he inevitably steals the scenes he takes part in.
Silence has been Scorsese’s passion project for around twenty-five years, and in completion it seems very much worth that wait. It comes together in its technical aspects, narrative, message, and acting in a way that, say, The Last Temptation did not, and succeeds in communicating a sense of spirituality to even the irreligious.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures