“Silence” the latest dramatic effort from director Martin Scorsese, who by now has established himself as one of the most influential figures in cinema history, is about two Jesuit (a form of Catholic) priests in the 1600’s who go looking for their mentor in Japan. Sounds boring, right?
It’s quite the opposite. And as much as one would expect one of the usual Christian propaganda films that always seems to pop-up at the onset of the new year, it’s quite the opposite of that too. Spawned from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shûsaku Endô, “Silence” is a three-hour understated yet haunting masterpiece almost 30 years in the making (talks of production from Scorsese began in the 80’s, but a lack of financing pushed it back into the 90’s, and bouts with production execs. prolonged it even further) about what it means to have faith. Or in this case, a lack there of.
Set in 1639, the film’s journey begins in Portugal where Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are listening to Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) read the last known letter to be written by the duo’s mentor Father Ferreira (played subtly yet intently by Liam Neeson), who dedicated the bulk of his life’s work to preaching the gospel in Japan. It has been declared through rumor that Ferreira since has denounced his faith and now lives amongst the citizens of Nagasaki as one of their own. In disbelief, Rodrigues and Garupe believe the finding of the letter is message from God telling them to go seek out Ferreira and bring him back to the church.
But relations between Japan and the Catholic church have become hostile, Valignano warns. At this time in history the Japanese have banned Christianity from the country, and anyone caught practicing the faith is put to death by methods of torture too sickening to describe here (warning to viewer: the torturing is brutal and often times hard to watch). If a priest is caught, the consequence is much more grave: apostatize (give up their faith) or let the suffering continue. Still, the two venture off to find Ferreira.
Upon their arrival in Japan they are greeted by villagers who practice Christianity in secret and beg them to preach the gospel (mostly baptisms and confessions), despite the always-looming danger. And when the danger inevitably arrives, even against the priests’ wishes, the villagers are more than willing to die for what their practice. The atrocities Rodrigues and Garupe witness during the persecutions are beyond any horrors imaginable to them, and Rodrigues begins to question why his all-loving, merciful God would let innocent people die for him in such agony. Garupe will come to this inquiry too, but not until much later in the film. They pray for the torturing to end and it doesn’t, and Rodrigues starts to wonder if there’s anything to pray to at all.
Do not get it twisted: “Silence” is not a stomp on Christianity. It acts more like a muse on the subject, wherein lies the reason it is a masterpiece. It’s not a question of faith, but a question of the meaning of faith, specifically Rodrigues’s. What good does his religion do if it brings on the deaths of so many? Do the villagers even know what is they’re dying for? There’s also some war sentiment strewn along. Innocent civilians dying amidst a conflict between two religious powers, sound familiar? There’s a lot to take away, but this film’s ultimate message still resides: maybe the “truth” for one isn’t the “truth” for another.
The film’s unfortunate downfall is it’s much too long. The story builds to a riveting climax that never comes, and spends the rest of its time delving into the details of a story that is far less interesting then what has already happened. It doesn’t feel like three hours until it’s gone on a half hour too long.
Garfield has become quite a catch in Hollywood, going from superhero pretty-boy to a dramatic tour de force, and is at some of his best as Ferreira’s torn pupil. Driver does the best with what he’s given; he’s only present for a little less than half the film, and it’s a shame to see such promising talent go to waste in such a capable role.
“Silence” is not a film for everyone, especially those of religious orientation. It’s slow, it’s quiet, and it’s most intense (and best) moments are not always action packed. Perhaps “Silence” would have had more significance in a much different time, as it was intended, for a much more appropriate audience, but that does not make its message any less relevant.