by Justin MadoreSilence is the latest film from legendary director Martin Scorsese, who still finds ways to diversify and expand his filmography with interesting and profound films well into his 70s. If there was ever any doubt about his versatility, he hushed those doubts with his most recent film, the insane comedic satire, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). With Silence, a tale of two Jesuit priests risking persecution to spread Christianity and find their former mentor in 17th-century Japan, Scorsese continues to push the envelope in terms of topic and execution in mainstream cinema, and delivers one of his most thought-provoking films of the past few decades, if not his entire career.
The story of Christian persecution at this time in Japan is perilous and epic in scope. The cinematic expression of the film’s emotions begins with the cinematography. Scorsese has reunited with veteran DP Rodrigo Prieto to create some of the most striking visuals I’ve seen all year. He captures the natural forces with such specificity, especially moisture. From the dense wisps of fog, to the crashing tides of the coastal regions, Scorsese uses the motif of water and makes it look both beautiful and intimidating. It’s a symbol of suffering before rebirth, and Prieto does an excellent job of getting this across. The lighting is also top notch in scenes that take place both inside and outside. The film looks dark enough to convey the mood, but not so dark that it becomes an eyesore. Contrast is also used well, as blood slashing across sand or fire being set beside thrashing waves is evocatively visualized. There’s such immense attention to detail in each shot that everything manages to look so picturesque and clean despite the sometimes grisly content.
The film stars Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Garupe, a pair of Jesuit priests who receive a letter from Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), their former mentor whom they thought was lost. The sense of danger is immediate as these two unarmed Christians sneak into Japan. After rendezvousing with Christian villagers, they’re given a small hut on a mountainside to stay out of sight. They’re told tales of a local inquisitor (Issei Ogata), a fearsome lawman responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christian worshippers. His methods are torturous and this serves as a grave omen of what’s to come.
Silence is decidedly violent, but not in the way you might expect. People are tortured and killed in a variety of terrible ways, from decapitations to being bound up and thrown into the water to drown. But in-between these scenes of violence, there are long periods of quiet. I’ll give an example. In the first act of the film, a few Christians who refuse to renounce God are tied up on crosses by authorities, and planted on the coast during low tide. While being tied up, there is no talking, no begging, and no crying. Instead, they prepare to meet their maker. The sounds of nature are all that can be heard. The waves come closer and closer, creating an aura of fear as they wait for the tide to kill them. They are literally suffering in silence, and the violence itself becomes quiet. It’s not so much about the actual act of violence, but what precedes it: a knowing and quiet acceptance of death. The minimal use of sound helps create a somber atmosphere around these events.The physical suffering of the characters is reflective of their personal devotion to what they believe in and the connections between religion, death, and violence become more prominent and complex as the film goes on. The incredibly nuanced commentary that Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks are delivering here would be lost without solid performances, but Garfield and Driver are excellent in their multifaceted roles. Both characters are portrayed as servants of the Lord, but imperfect beings. They preach the word of God, but like so many of us, they have trouble communicating with God. Their conversations enrich the film, offering a look at religious figures that we rarely get in cinema. Like the villages across Japan celebrating Christianity, they too are terrified, and this fear leads them to betray themselves. When they separate at the end of the first act, Garfield is given a chance to shine, as his character becomes much more multidimensional after this point. He’s happy to help others, but he’s also selfish and egotistical. He’s meant to hear others’ confessions, but loathes doing so. It’s an incredible performance that dwarfs his recent noted work in Hacksaw Ridge.
However, the best performance in the film comes from Ogata. As the Inquisitor, he’s known for his ruthless tactics, but when Garfield sits down with him to have a conversation, he is surprisingly personable and one of the few sources of levity in the film. He’s also mentally sharp and raises several pertinent questions to consider. In one memorable scene in which Garfield is given the chance to renounce God to save others who have been captured, the Inquisitor calls Rodrigues out on his budding egotism, stating, “The price for your glory is their suffering.” He’s a powerful figure that balances both rationality and pragmatism — reasonable in his arguments, but fully capable of monstrous action — and Ogata’s performance elevates a well-written character.
The interplay between Ogata and Garfield presents some of the most meaningful questions that Silence poses. How justified are the Japanese in their slaughter of Christians? Can martyrdom be selfish? Do Christians have the right to spread their ideologies where they please? Does publicly renouncing God cripple your relationship with Him? The film doesn’t always answer these questions, but respect where respect is due — these are questions that most films wouldn’t dare pose to audiences, especially in a mainstream theatrical release.
This risk that Scorsese and Cocks have taken will likely dissuade some viewers from the film. The movie takes its time coming to its conclusion, and it doesn’t coddle its viewers. If you’re going in expecting a faith-affirming religious celebration, it’s not for you. If you want a tight, 90-minute experience, it’s not for you. If you want all of your questions answered, it’s not for you. However, if you’re a fan of intelligent and thought-provoking cinema, Silence is most definitely for you. Scorsese’s willingness to challenge the audience may be off-putting for some, but it’s that same inclination to explore new territory that makes this tale of Christian persecution all the more nuanced and arresting.
4.5 out of 5 stars