The film inhabits the character of a 17th Century Jesuit missionary to Japan who is forced to recant his faith. The ‘silence’ being referred to in the film’s title might be read as the priest’s Christ-like experience of despair. But silence also lies at the heart of much mystical religious experience, something that the film spends a great deal of time in exploring.
There is a third way that silence can be thought of, within the bounds of this film at least, but we’ll get to that later.
Is Silence an opaque film? Is one of its flaws that it doesn’t try to explain itself but rather demands the viewer’s engagement?
These are difficult questions to answer. Upon my initial viewing, I thought it was a good film. In thinking about Silence later and writing this review, I’ve come to think of it as a great one.
It’s better handled and less overblown than some of Scorsese’s other ‘epics’, The Wolf of Wall Street or Gangs of New York for example. It completes Scorsese’s trilogy about faith that began with Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ. Like most of Scorsese’s films, it’s mainly focused on the male psyche on the edge of breakdown. There’s not much room for women here.
One of the flaws of Silence lies in its too-obvious fidelity to the classic three-part screenplay formula, which makes the narrative slightly clunky.
In the first section, we see two Jesuit priests land on the volcanic, wave tossed shores of Japan: Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). Garfield may not have been first choice for the central role (other, perhaps more A-list stars, turned the part down while the film was in its long development) but he brings an intensity and lightness of touch that grows with the narrative. Driver is convincingly gawky, passionate and unlucky.
The priests are searching for their teacher, like them a Portuguese missionary rumoured to have recanted. They are taken in by fearful and devout Christian villagers, who harbour a Judas amongst them. Betrayal is swift and retribution (on the villagers) terrible.
The second section of Silence has Rodrigues wandering alone and distraught in the mountains until tracked down by the Japanese ‘Inquisitor’ Inoue.
The third part takes us into the dark world of Rodrigues’ subsequent torture and imprisonment. Garupe more or less disappears after the first section. Scorsese (and the Japanese) are much more interested in Rodrigues as a proxy Jesus Christ; the comparison is made obvious at more than one point.
Inoue uses a range of subtle and brutal methods to break Rodrigues down, including bringing the apostatised father Ferreira to meet him and confirm his worst fears. Liam Neeson as Ferreira puts in a by turns cold and sympathetic performance that reminds us of what a capable actor he can be.
Torturing and killing Christian peasants before Rodrigues’s eyes is another of Inoue’s methods. The question being asked regards the supposed benevolence of the Christian God. Martyrdom may be one thing, but can or should a good person expect others to suffer and die for them? Rodrigues’ choices are slowly taken away from him, and his forced retreat into physical silence is a third way that the film’s title resonates.
Silence shares some obvious similarities with Joffe’s The Mission, though it’s more even-handed. Scorsese brings his lens to bear on the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, the West and the East. He shows us the hypocrisies of the Catholic missionaries and their imperialist mission, as seen by Japanese eyes.
But he’s also after a current blind spot. Buddhism is a part of the western zeitgeist just now, partly because we see it as a liberal and rational religion, but we’re looking at it through the lens of our culture. The Buddhism Scorsese shows us that existed in feudal Japan may have been one of an inspiring humanism – but only at the top end of the caste system. Just as in the West, the poor lived lives of unremitting brutality and misery. The peasants were attracted to Christianity precisely because it promised them salvation in the next world, redemption from their suffering in this one.
With Silence, Scorsese achieves a dreamlike reality; its mystical symbolism grounded beautifully in the mise en scène. It looks and feels authentic, from the muddy, sodden fields of the villages to the clean, sophisticated, brutal world of the Japanese court and city.
Some critics have called Silence overly long and tortuous, but this may be missing the point. Wrestling with a savage conscience and a hostile culture, Rodrigues is a man in agony. Scorsese does not want us to avoid this.
Silence offers some tremendous performances, not least by Garfield and Issei Ogata as the savage and sympathetic Inquisitors. Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), the Judas, is one of the most interesting characters and central to the plot. His eventual redemption occurs in the blink of an eye, and it’s a mark of Scorsese’s brilliance that he doesn’t make too much of this.
Silence may not seem the most promising subject matter, but if you’re prepared to take a leap of faith it will come back to haunt you.