Warning: Spoilers Will Follow
Martin Scorsese's Silence is a film one has to give themselves over to completely. It's a somber, meditative, quiet, slow, and challenging experience. It's refreshingly uncompromised and never feels like it was made for all audiences- or even one audience in particular. It feels very specific, not just to Scorsese's relationship with faith, but to a particular feeling of guilt and what it means to wrestle with one own's faith. It's my favourite film of 2016 and while watching it I was amazed this was a film coming out of a Hollywood studio in 2016. It feels very European and something that belongs to an earlier era. For me, I think it's up there with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal in regards to films about the nature of faith and wanting an answer from God. I think To Scorsese the cinema is like a religion, and a cinema is a church; and Silence is a film that calls out to be seen in a on a huge screen, similar to 2001 or the epics of David Lean.
The film takes place in the 17th century. Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are Portuguese Jesuit priests who learn their mentor and fellow priest Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy while in Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe have doubts as to the truth of this story so they travel to Japan in search of Ferreira. In Japan Japanese Christians are being prosecuted and forced to renounce Christianity. Rodrigues and Garupe help the Christians who have been driven underground by the Shoguns's Grand Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Rodrigues and Garupe eventually split up and Rodrigues is captured by the Inquisitor's men. Rodrigues is told to apostatise or others will be tortured until he does.
The film is based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel of the same name, which was made in to a previous film in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda. The screenplay for Scorsese's adaptation was co-written by Scorsese with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Scorsese has been wanting to direct a film of Endo's novel for years. Having finally made the film, Silence does feel like something Scorsese has been working towards for years, largely because it doesn't move, sound or look like our collective image of a Scorsese film. It's almost like Scorsese has been living with this novel for so long that his passion for it become bigger than his own stylistic sensibilities. The story couldn't be boxed in by an established style.
Scorsese's films are known for their quick-fire editing, which can largely be credited to Scorsese's long time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, whose has edited Scorsese's every non-documentary film since Raging Bull. Here, the editing isn't as frantic, the shots last longer, and with one exception there's no sweeping camera moves. Scorsese wants you to soak in the film's atmosphere and feel it in your bones and soul. The film is largely set outdoors and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography makes you feel the nature of Japan in all its beauty and mystery.
As with the the search for Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now we're kept in the dark as to Ferreira's fate until the final act. But as with Coppola's film, Silence is more than just the story about searching for some. The film becomes a spiritual search- a search for meaning amongst unbearable suffering and an answer from God. Throughout the film Rodrigues struggles with his faith and is given a choice between watching others suffer and committing apostasy. The question Rodrigues faces is whether renouncing God is the most Christian thing he can do- if it does stop people from torment.
But forcing someone to apostatise doesn't prevent that person from still believing in God. However, if you do apostatise, psychologically, you may feel you truly have turned your back on God and can't be redeemed, that what you've said reflects what you feel. But thoughts and words are always in an ambiguous intertwined relationship. Throughout the film Rodrigues thoughts are filled with doubt but what he says never betrays those thoughts. It's only near the end of the film that he verbalizes these doubts. When spreading religion, a man like Rodrigues cannot verbally express doubt. He has to be a figure of zero ambiguity.
As the film goes along we come to understand- to an extent- Inoue's perspective on Christianity in Japan. It is arrogant for people to enter another country and telling people what to believe. Rodrigues exemplifies this arrogance when he says there is one universal truth the Jesuits are spreading.
One of the best scenes in the film is between Rodrigues and Inoue, discussing religion's place in Japan. It's in this scene where we truly see the point of view of the Japanese. Inoue uses the analogy of a daimyo who had four concubines and were jealous. Eventually the daimyo and was at peace. In the analogy the daimyo is Japan and the concubines are the different countries which are attempting to win Japan over to their side. Rodrigues proposes that Japan take one wife, to which Inoue says Rodrigues means Japan should pick Portugal. Rodrigues says he means the Holy Church but one feels Inoue is right. It's not just about one universal truth, it's about Portugal and having power over Japan. Rodrigues presumes he knows more than Inoue and can convince him that he is right. But Inoue is arguably the more intelligent of the two. Though in many ways Rodrigues and Inoue are to each other the most formidable foe either has encountered. And ultimately, both are stuck in a way of thinking that will either be vindicated or will lead to their destruction.
Garfield's performance is truly transformative. I haven't seen his Oscar-nominated work in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge but I feel he should have been nominated for this. With Garfield, Scorsese is doing what he did with Leonardo DiCaprio, in that he's really pushing Garfield and allowing us to see a different side of the actor. It's amazing this is the same actor that played Spider-Man. Ogata' performance is exaggerated but subdued, he plays Inoue almost but not quite a parody. We're left a little off balance by him, which gives him the advantage. It's kind of a brilliant performance. Driver, whose been building up an impressive performance since appearing on HBO's Girls. I wish he had a little more screentime as Garupe but like Garfield he truly embodies his character. We don't Adam from Girls or Kylo Ren from Star Wars.
Neeson doesn't reappear until the third act but through his performance we see the culmination of many of the film's thematic threads. As was told, Ferreira has taken a Japanese name and has renounced God. He tells Rodrigues that Japan only believes in their distortion of the Bible and they can't conceive of anything beyond nature, of the Christian God. Ultimately, one religion cannot fit every culture, which is why there must be doubt of a universal truth.
Viewing Ferreira through Rodrigues' point of view, he's the mentor figure who has drastically changed and can offer no comfort. Rodrigues has found his former master but Ferreira now wants Rodrigues to renounce God. By having Rodrigues renounce God, Ferreira will eliminate the last part of his previous life as a Jesuit priest. Rodrigues' view Ferreira reflects how we can imagine Inoue views Japanese Christians- they are no longer who they were before. Maybe after finally finding Ferreira Rodrigues can finally understand Inoue on some level.
Ferreira tells Rodrigues he can't compare his suffering to Jesus. Rodrigues can't place his suffering above other peoples' which is a difference between Jesus and Rodrigues. Rodrigues is made to look like Jesus- his facial hair and wardrobe; and there's a great shot where he sees his reflection it changes in to an image of Jesus. But despite these deliberate aesthetic parallels, Ferreira's point of view subverts our expectations that Rodrigues is supposed to be a literal Jesus figure; ultimately Rodrigues' path and destiny is different than Jesus.
Rodrigues' journey doesn't end the way he thought it would, but no one's ever does, another reason we can't really be like Jesus. Our fates are not foretold to us. Rodrigues does not die for anyone's sins and fades in to obscurity. Is Rodrigues' fate our own? We are left with the question of whether Rodrigues was lost to God, which only God can answer. Hypothetically if there was a God only that God can speak or him/her/itself. I feel this question asks us not to attempt an answer but to be compassionate and not dole out judgement.
Unfortunately the film has not fared well at the box office. This is really a shame because it's so deserving of an audience and feels like it would have garnered more of an audience decades ago. But it's understandable a mainstream film, religious or otherwise. But I hope it gains more of an audience in the coming years. It's a brutal but I think rewarding film that almost feels like a miracle.