ON IN CINEMAS
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel by Shusaku Endo is set during the 17th century when the Christian minority in Japan was violently persecuted. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), two Jesuit priests of the Portuguese Empire, are on a mission to receive word that one of their compadres Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing in Japan, is still alive. Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) notifies that he has received a letter from the latter saying that he has renounced his faith and is living as a Japanese citizen. However Rodrigues and Garrpe can’t believe that his faith would waver like this and set sail for the Far East.
They stop off in the Portuguese colony of Macao and get pick up a washed-up Japanese peasant named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who can guide them through his native territory. When the three set sail and land on the Japanese coast Kichijiro leads the two priests to a group of hiding Christian villagers led by Ichizo (Yoshi Oida). This group of adherents, who are clearly in awe of the pair, reveal that Kichijiro was forced to renounce his Christian faith by a Grand Inquisitor from Nagasaki, who killed the rest of his family and only spared him when he passed a test by stamping on a metal icon of Jesus. The villagers decide to give the two priests a hiding place in a remote, squalid hut.
After many days pass of the pair hiding in unpleasant conditions they decide to risk going out and enjoying the sun. However they soon notice that they are being watched by two mysterious figures behind the trees. Worried about being reported, they retreat to the hut’s secret hiding hole and wait. That night they hear someone calling at their door. Rodrigues, against the advice of the more stoic Garrpe, decides to open up and investigate. He is greeted by the two men he saw earlier, who mention that they were asked by Kichijiro to invite them to meet some believers hiding in another village so as to give them their blessings.
Unfortunately shortly after they arrive at this village they find that Japanese Inquisitors have captured Ichizo and suspect that there are more adherents hiding out in the vicinity. The Inquisitors coerce four villagers (amongst them Kichijiro) to give themselves up as hostages and then force them to commit to two tests: firstly, to step on an icon of Jesus and secondly, to spit on a crucifix. All but Kichijiro fail to carry out the task. Rodrigues and Garrpe - who are still being kept in concealment by the villagers - watch helplessly from behind the trees as the other three are left crucified on the sea shore at the mercy of the crashing waves, and on their inevitable expiration are cremated and their ashes cast to sea so that their remains can’t be given a Christian burial. The rest of Silence chronicles how the duo’s faith is tested in the face of the unbelievable suffering inflicted on the people who look up to them as those who wield the word of their saviour.
Silence is Scorsese’s second meditation on the Christian faith (the earlier being The Last Temptation of Christ). That one caused huge controversy due to its depiction of its central religious figure. This one however has been fully endorsed by The Vatican - no doubt partially because of the relatively progressive viewpoint of Pope Francis. Nonetheless Scorsese treads quite carefully here and provides more of a discussion-based piece than a mindless tract. Christians may well feel their worldview validated and hardened when they witness many adherents suffering at length throughout the film’s runtime. On the other hand, they might be compelled to revisit the nature of their own devotions. Non-Christians (in particular atheists) at the same time might see the unwavering complicity of Rodrigues and Garrpe in the face of the suffering of those around them (for the sake of blind belief) as an example of how clinging onto their worldview is a self-destructive exercise of dogma overriding morality. On the other hand, they might get an insight into how belief, in itself, can be a form of internal defiance in the face of a brutally-established order.
As a piece of cinema Silence is, as is usually the case with Scorsese, a highly impressive piece of cinema. After watching it you are likely to come away with at least two dozen (or so) images that will have burnt themselves into your mind. Maybe it’s the God’s eye view of the boat the priests take to the Far East, which is followed by the camera panning upwards through the clouds to stare straight into the sun (not a gratuitous shot incidentally since it its symbolic relevance is explained towards the film’s end). Perhaps it’s the figures amid the smoke-shrouded springs at the film’s start. It could be the sense of dislocation induced by the camera pulling back from Rodrigues as he collapses from thirst amid the forest’s cover. What about the village, deserted of all inhabitants bar a smattering of stray cats? Maybe it’s the notable scene from the POV of Rodrigues as he’s dragged on horseback through the colourful activity of a Japanese village? If it’s none of those, surely it’s that shockingly sudden out-of-the-blue decapitation?
While Christian iconography does feature here (crucifixion, fish, thirty pieces of silver cast roughly at a treacherous character), much of the film’s language is more nature-based and elemental in keeping with Shinto, the country’s indigenous neo-Pagan belief system. Green landscapes, wood, fire, water, smoke and animals dominate Scorsese’s compositions, highlighting the difficulty that Christianity has making a mark within this world.
The performances are very good, though seem oddly short of perfection. Andrew Garfield conveys a convincing sense of human frailty wavering against the beliefs he has dedicated his life to. However, he doesn’t quite stand out as much as some of the other actors here - including Adam Driver as his colleague (despite the latter being the secondary focus amongst the duo). Liam Neeson is compelling as Ferreira - capturing all of the complications of a man simultaneously broken and enlightened by his harrowing past. However, it’s a little distracting that he retains his Northern Irish brogue when the other actors work hard to give their Portuguese characters suitably authentic accents. Issei Ogata as an ageing Samurai is authoritative in an arrogant yet persuasive manner, but his mannerisms feel overdone to the point of caricature. In many ways the best work comes from Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, the most ambiguously elaborate character of all.
I comment on the performances not so much because they are the major flaw itself (they are fine by most standards) but because the slight imperfections become more noticeable in the light of the film’s major flaw: it’s so torturously long (in more than one sense of the word). Much of the runtime is given over to endless depictions of suffering inflicted on the adherents by the Japanese, and to Rodrigues’s resultant wrestlings with his faith. It can really only be taken so far in terms of screen time before it becomes numbing and monotonous, and Silence goes well beyond that point. The shame is that the discussions on the nature of faith, how it ties up with wider principles and how it varies from one culture to another are fascinating. It’s just that they are buried within a beautifully made but almost wilfully unenjoyable film.
Silence is one of those film’s that’s easy to admire, but hard to like. However, it is recommended for a viewing if only for the provocative nature of its internal discussion; your reaction to it is likely to be very personal depending on your own views on faith, religion and morality.
Runtime: 161 mins
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Script: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese, from a novel by Shusaku Endo
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka