Silence, like so many modern film masterworks, is not an easy film to watch or digest.
It puts human suffering and privation front and center. It questions the very nature of religious faith, and the universality of “truths” beyond specific social contexts.
Technically speaking, Silence is almost beyond reproach. Director Martin Scorsese approaches the material with reverence and a keen eye for detail. The actors, in particular Andrew Garfield, deliver unforgettable work characterized by compassion and palpable anguish.
Put simply, it’s the very definition of a “heavy” film. At least it should prove to be, for audience members for whom faith is a thought provoking or personal issue.
What’s it about?
In the early 17th Century, the Tokugawa shogun of Japan expelled Christian missionaries from the country, and outlawed the practice of Christianity. An inquisition across the land compelled commoners and Christian priests to apostatize — publicly renounce the faith — or face death by crucifixion or worse.
In Portugal, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), are informed of the unthinkable. Their mentor, Father Christovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has reportedly apostatized.
Unwilling to believe the report, the two young priests travel to Japan to discover the truth. Once there, they find villages full of “hidden Christians” — poor commoners devout in their belief and practicing in secret.
Rodrigues and Garupe do what they can, but it’s not long before the inquisition comes looking for them. In horror, they watch the land’s Samurai lords torture and kill Christians for not apostatizing, the very Christians the two tried to help by ministering to them.
Though shaken time and again in their resolve, the two cling to their faith and their mission. After all, Jesus himself was tested, according to scripture. How can they possibly do less for the faithful who need them?
But the horrors they witness continue to mount, and they find little sign of Ferreira. Once the Samurai make it clear that Rodrigues and Garupe have the power to end the villagers’ suffering, a hard question becomes unavoidable.
Whose glory does all that suffering and death truly serve? God’s, or their own?
Scorsese’s passion project
Reportedly, Martin Scorsese committed to making Silence as early as 1988, when he first read the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel upon which the film is based. Watching the final product, it’s clear the film was a labor of love.
The evidence of his vision for bringing the novel to life is everywhere, from staging to production design to the film’s expansive running time. Scorsese even earns a screenwriting credit for Silence, only the second of his career, alongside screenwriter Jay Cocks.
What results is a very patient, deliberately paced and meticulously crafted film. Scorsese provides an utterly immersive and compelling narrative, one that demands the very best from the performers bringing it to life.
Garfield, Japanese cast stand out
Andrew Garfield delivers yet another powerful performance, following his Golden Globe-nominated turn in Hacksaw Ridge. He seems determined to make the world forget those mediocre Spider-Man films that helped him break out, and it’s working.
However, Garfield’s is just one of many memorable turns in Silence. Neeson brings his trademark gravity in limited screen time. Driver, on the other hand, might be unrecognizable to those who only know him from his recent Star Wars work. His physical transformation alone is startling — add to that the emotion in his performance and you get career benchmark work.
Surrounding this talented trio is an equally talented ensemble of Japanese actors. Watch for a memorably silver-tongued turn by Tadanobu Asano, who plays Hogun the Grim in Marvel’s Thor films. Acclaimed actor and cyberpunk film director Shinya Tsukamoto also shines in Silence as Mokichi, a devout villager who helps hide the Jesuits and inspires them with his courage.
For fans of Scorsese’s long filmography, Silence is a must-see. Scorsese himself is on the record saying there’s a little bit of every film he’s ever done here. That alone should be incentive enough for any ardent devotee to give it a go.
Beyond even that enticement, however, Silence should prove rewarding as an exploration of how people internalize and practice faith. The film examines how different cultures interpret dogmatic practices and beliefs, and poses hard questions about devotion to abstract principle in the face of very real pain and death.
Again, it’s heavy stuff. To that end, if you prefer your Scorsese more gangster and F-bomb centric, Silence might be one of his films you skip.
Be advised, though. You may just be skipping out on what he considers his best.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Running Time: 161 minutes
Rated R for some disturbing violent content.