by Philip Price
“Silence” is director Martin Scorsese's 24th narrative feature and one the auteur has been longing to make for quite some time. With that, “Silence” is a nearly three-hour epic that feels as if it has so much on its mind while at the same time not exactly conjuring much thought about anything other than what is physically presented. This is somewhat troubling considering “Silence” is a movie wholly about spirituality and the fact it isn't so much the traditions and exteriors of a religion or set of beliefs that matter, but whether the individual practices what their faith teaches daily while realizing how best to do so when that faith is inevitably tested. There is clearly a lot going on in “Silence” and much Scorsese seems to want to discuss, but the final product we've been delivered is so subtle about its deeper meanings and feelings around the people and subjects it is taking on that the viewer really has to reach into the depths of their attention to pull something substantial from the experience. One can counterpoint with the fact that Scorsese simply isn't spoon feeding viewers what he wants them to think and how he hopes they perceive his ponderings, but rather that he gives the facts of these "based on true life" events with limited shades of interpretation to allow the audience to have their own. This is fair. We have so many churches and/or places of worship these days due to the fact so many couldn't let their interpretations settle into an already established denomination, but this isn't the same kinds of conflicts of faith our characters in “Silence” struggle to comprehend. More, this a film about the thought process, the heart of the teachings Christianity and other religions preach, and how these intangible things define who we are as individuals and the role they play in determining the tone of humanity. There are no concrete definitions, no absolutes, no black or white, but instead Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks have adapted Shûsaku Endô's 1966 novel into a meditative film that has the odd distinction of both being completely about what lies beneath the surface yet oftentimes feels only surface level as far as impact and effectiveness are concerned. There is no denying that the film has layers upon layers from which numerous conversations can be elicited while featuring gorgeous photography, a couple of committed and rather brilliant performances, as well as some genuinely heart-wrenching moments that, depending on beliefs prior to seeing the film, will either reaffirm your faith or cast greater doubt than even before. For such factors alone, “Silence” is a staggering piece of work that should be commended, but on a basic level of raw emotional response the film didn't leave the lasting impression or transcendent experience great sermons hope to accomplish.
Sermon is an accurate word to describe just what “Silence” is. Though not based specifically on any passage from the Bible, the film is a conversation around topics cupped from the waters of the good book that means to ask what the right, just, and humble things to do are when applying its teachings to situations such as those our three main characters encounter during their specific time on earth. Scorsese's film opens in 1633 introducing us to Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) as he witnesses the persecution of hidden Christians in Japan. Ferreira is among a select few priests attempting to spread the Gospel in the country that, at that time, felt they had lost control over what their nation once stood for and thus outlawed all outside factors that lay claim to any influence on its people. After seven years in Japan the last letter Ferreira wrote finally reaches Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) who relays it to two of Ferreira's former students in Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver). Though not stated in his letter, Valignano shares that he has received word Ferreira apostatized from the church meaning he has denounced the faith. Rodrigues and Garupe find this hard to believe, arguing Ferreira risked his life to spread their faith across Japan and requesting they be sent to try and find their mentor as well as assist in aiding the persecuted Japanese Christians in any way the can. Valignano grants them this journey, but not without warning. "The moment you step foot into that country you step into high danger," says Valignano, but with no luggage other than their hearts and what God has put on those hearts do they enter Japan, an army of two. It is from here the film begins to feel less like it has a driving narrative and more as if it is simply present to document the types of tortures and trials Japanese Christians were made to deal with on account of their beliefs. Rodrigues and Garupe are introduced to a guide of sorts in the disheveled Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) and they first come in contact with a village of genuinely devout believers who they find hope and a refreshing amount of motivation in. The strength on which “Silence” rests is in the conflicts our two protagonists begin to encounter as they become more aware of both truths about the Japanese Christians they're leading as well as the ever-present threat the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) poses.
The layers of what Scorsese is meaning to tap into begin to become more evident as Rodrigues and Garupe better acquaint themselves with the villagers on the outskirts of Nagasaki. The faithfulness and general devoutness of these villagers is astounding, but in a scene that occurs within the first hour where a young couple hopes to have their baby baptized in the Christian faith it becomes apparent they don't actually understand the concepts on which they are submitting themselves and their child to. If they don't understand or fully grasp the teachings of Christianity how can they be so devout? It might be that Christianity, like the religion the Japanese are touting as their own despite Buddhism technically being another non-native religion, more or less teach the same ideas when it comes down to it. The presentation might be different, but these people are simply looking to lead lives steeped in forgiveness and faith. They can do this by following the religion their country has deemed acceptable in Buddhism and yet, for one reason or another, they have chosen to defy and risk their lives for the sake of growing Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is where the point of real struggle, authentic inner-turmoil, and confusion begin to seep in as the film more steers away from the journey of the stout and unwavering Garupe and more in the direction of Garfield's empathetic Rodrigues. Just how much of them attempting to spread the word of God does actual good for the world? Rodrigues can't help but question what he sees and doubt what he's devoted his life to in light of such revelations. The young priest attempts to remind himself that God sends trials to test us, but can' help but to ask why these trials are so terrible? Why were these people, these Japanese Christians in particular, chosen to carry such a burden? How is he to explain God's silence in response to their screams? And why is it that when he does offer an answer or psalm that such responses feel weak? A picture begins to form of just how selfish these priests could be perceived as-hoping to convert a country to what they (arrogantly?) believe to be true, for the glory of the God they just so happen to believe in only for that glory to come at the hands of innocent people suffering. “Silence” never flat-out calls the priests wrong, but it does offer perspective in that faith is necessary, but not necessary in the extravagant ways of the church, but rather more in the lead by example train of thought. It isn't the institution that matters, but the faith felt inside that determines the solace of the soul.
Of course, as presented here, the Japanese are inherently thought of as the enemy, but whether it be in Ogata's performance as the ultimate defiant of Christianity or the way in which Garfield conveys Rodrigues' internal conflict it is clear it never means to say that one side is more in the right than the other. To come away from the film thinking Scorsese has picked one side over the other is to miss the point of the film altogether. Rather, as the film somewhat resets at its hour and 15-minute mark it intentionally becomes more about the deeper meanings, the real value in what Rodrigues and Christian Europe are fighting for. Sure, they believe in spreading the word of God because that is what God is quoted as saying in the Bible, but by doing so-by submitting some of their own to be martyr's-just how selfish are they actually being? Valignano even states in the opening act of the film that thousands of Japanese are dead because of what they brought to their country and it is said with regret in his voice. That weakness and doubt will always rear their heads to be wrestled with, but that rather than being absorbed by the technicalities of making sure as many people are labeled as Christian as can possibly be in the world that it might be more productive and more meaningful to Christ if individuals simply led their lives by the virtue of forgiveness-quietly demonstrating their faith in their acts rather than loudly proclaiming them from the pulpit. In the end, “Silence” doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but more it and eventually Rodrigues draw the conclusion that faith will always be a struggle. It should be. It won't always feel natural or the best fit for your life, but to discard it would be as selfish an act as those on the other end of the spectrum have committed.
It is conversation such as what the previous paragraphs have described that make “Silence” a rather incredible achievement. Not because it blatantly attempts to stir up religious debate and conversation, but because it quietly rouses such thought while on the surface being rather boring in certain sections. One can understand why Scorsese felt the nearly three-hour runtime was essential given the amount of time and thought the director has clearly invested in the project, but as a movie-going experience “Silence” certainly has the power to test your endurance. This is especially true in the second act of the film where Garfield is taken to a prison of sorts where he is subjected to watching people he and his faith have more or less sentenced to death die at the hands of the Inquisitor and his peers. It is through the telling eyes of Garfield that the film retains much of its weight in these otherwise muted sections. Despite still feeling somewhat out of his depth due to his rather gawky facade as opposed to the strong presence he might seemingly represent Garfield's performance as this pious individual leaves a mark. The film leans heavily on narration from the actor, who perfected a Portuguese tongue for the role, and his clear commitment in both physicality and most importantly, in spirituality, is on full display in some of the more tough-to-watch sequences. Kubozuka's performance as the consistently weak and unfailingly regretful Kichijiro is a highlight of the film as well in that his arc never ends up going or resonating in the way one might expect after each sequence he appears in-even so much as to be surprising in how much of a role he comes to play in our protagonist's life overall. “Silence” has many other laudable factors such as the specific sound design and lack of any traditional score as well as being outright gorgeous in the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto, but it is none of these that redeem the film from being a mostly tepid experience when watching it top to bottom. It is only in the reverberating themes and ideas of the business of our faith being of little difference at the time of our death, but more how we exuded such faith and how it touched the lives of others that lives on that we come to understand the real power of “Silence” and Scorsese's exercise in restraint by how much it continues to fulfill when thoughts return to it.