Oppressively contemplative and impassively brutal, Martin Scorsese’s religious epic sweeps us back in time to the rule of a cruel and uncompromising Japanese Shogunate.
When a Dutch trader delivers the last letter from Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and testifies that Ferreira committed apostasy after being tortured, two of his former pupils – Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) – insist on travelling to Japan to find him despite the warning from the head of their order that they will be the last two priests to be sent on a mission to Japan.
From a purely technical standpoint, “Silence” is a filmmaking masterpiece, as if we’d expect anything less from Scorsese. Visually mesmerising, with Taiwan acting as a stunning stand-in for 17th Century Japan, the first hour or so of this 160 minute epic is a gripping and often gruelling exploration of missionary work in a viciously hostile country and almost resembles a feudal Japanese “Saving Private Ryan”. It’s after this first hour, though, that the film’s contemplative approach falls to navel gazing and repetition, almost in parody of the ritualistic and repetitive nature of the dogma and rites which forms the movie’s core.
Indeed, as it unflinchingly holds its gaze on the sadistic punishments meted out by the Japanese authorities on those citizens who have adopted Christianity as a way of life, the film also lays bare the absurd trivialities, idolatry and empty ritualism of missionary Catholicism, marking the vast gaping chasm between what the missionaries promised and what the new followers were expected to give and endure in return for it. This is not the South Seas style missionary work of bringing civilisation to the primitives, bringing both the word of God and the benefits of modern medicine, sanitation and education. No, this is the aggressive and expansionary Catholic Church looking to establish a foothold in a foreign territory in order to expand its political and financial power, offering nothing but trinkets and rituals in return for absolute devotion and acquiescence to catechism.
Time and again, the story underlines the suffering that must be endured for the sake of belief, with no other reward save the unfulfillable and intangible promise of life everlasting beyond death. As the cost in human life and suffering of this tortuously arrogant belief mounts, the film forces those of faith – and those without – to contemplate the value of that faith given the price paid. But even as the priests’ devotion to the church is severely tested by repeated cycles of forgiveness and recidivism, the film erodes respect for that piety.
Andrew Garfield gives a tremendous performance as the young priest pushed beyond the breaking point of his faith, as each layer of the structure of his belief is torn down or seems to turn its back on him, but he’s as often a distraction as he is a focal point thanks to his impossibly coiffured hair remaining unfeasibly bouffant throughout his time in Japan, whether he is sleeping rough in the jungle or being held in a prison cell. Although they’re assets to the film, both Adam Driver and Liam Neeson are sorely underused but it’s in Issey Ogata that “Silence” finds its MVP. As the ruthless and implacably relentless governor Inoue Masashige, Ogata’s playfully sing-song, whimsical performance brings a deeply sinister and uneasy energy to the ultimate confrontation between faith and determined, obdurate authority.
This may have been a passion project for Scorsese as far back as 1990, but in bringing it to the screen he seems to have articulated the Passion of Father Rodrigues in unflinching and lavish detail but also exposed the potential emptiness of faith itself. Perhaps the silence isn’t one of peaceful assuredness but the awkward, empty space left by the film’s own unanswered questions.