When the first trailer for Martin’s Scorsese’s latest feature surfaced during winter of last year I felt a palpable sense of surprise. The first glimpses of the beloved director’s take on feudal Japan, with its swooping shots of a barren, arid landscape, combined with the terrified faces of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver fighting off the local samurai, was a far cry from packed Wall Street offices or shady, Las Vegas casinos. It looked as if Scorsese had created an original detective thriller, complete with a strong cast, unique setting and religious subtext. What surprised me most however upon viewing, was how far the film’s publicity had strayed from the final product. What was marketed to look like a frenetic “missing person” adventure revolving around the search for a lost priest turned out to be a patient, thoughtful analysis of the meaning of faith and its compatibility with different peoples and cultures. By tricking us into thinking we were in for a ride on a roller coaster, Scorsese instead subverted first impressions to introduce us to a different experience; one far closer to his own heart and personal beliefs.
Silence is a film clearly focused on the nature and power of faith. It’s main players, both Christian and Buddhist, conflict with each other throughout the course of the narrative. The two leads, Garfield and Driver, play Jesuit priests who learn that their former master, the man who brought them into the church, Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson), has now renounced his faith and become a heretic. They learn this through a letter allegedly written by him from Japan and sent to Macau, Portugal, after committing apostasy. In disbelief, the two pupils beg the local parish father to grant them permission to travel to Japan to find Ferreira and discover if the rumours are true. For such a standard opening one might be inclined to think Silence is the detective mystery that the trailer promised. The film’s opening sequence shows the horrific torture of Ferreira’s disciples in Japan, brought about by a growing hostility towards foreigners and, in particular, Christians. The two young Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver) have a zealous urge to find their master and bring him home, creating the illusion of a simplistic plot. Their voyage leads them to hire a boat with a drunk Japanese sailor as their guide. Once they arrive in Japan they are greeted by local villagers who live in constant fear, hiding their Christian faith from the authorities. The first act carries all of the beats one would expect to find in a mystery film and has the fastest pace compared with the remainder of the narrative.
But once the priests’ arrival is established the film become something far more meditative. The local villagers who greet them beg to confess their sins and perform other sacraments; wishing for them to stay permanently, albeit in hiding. Both Rodrigues and Garupe at first agree, but as time passes, the urge to locate Ferreira becomes stronger. In an act of faith, Rodrigues decides to leave the village and make for Gotō Island, the last known location of Ferreira. It is on this journey that Rodrigues, Scorsese and we as the audience begin to understand what the director and screenwriter had intended all along. The central theme of the film is faith. Not blind faith in a deity or some kind of miracle; but what the essence of faith means. Garfield’s Rodrigues undergoes a slow but steady transformation from pious and devout priest to that of a questioning sceptic. His belief in God and what the nature of suffering means is subverted and twisted by the Japanese authorities, as well as by the actions of people who claim to be true Christian’s. There are several moments where Rodrigues witnesses cruelty and betrayal at the hands of those he trusted, a faith he placed all too readily in strangers. The drunken sailor who brought both priests to Japan, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), is a repeating offender, confessing and then betraying Rodrigues to the authorities to save his own skin. Each time Rodrigues witnesses a horrific act his faith is tested further and further. In one scene his partner, Garupe, is caught along with several other Christian villagers and drowned in the sea after refusing to apostatize, whilst Rodrigues is forced to watch. During his eventual imprisonment, he is mocked and scorned by the locals and treated as something of a dangerous oddity. At his tribunal the local governor, along with his English translator, fiercely debate the nature of Christianity and its incompatibility with Japan with him, bringing further doubt into Rodrigues’ mind.
In many not so subtle ways, Rodrigues’ ordeal very much mimics Christ’s own trials. His suffering is compounded by an aggressive hostility from the Japanese, bringing constant doubt to the purpose of his mission. His act of performing sacraments to the local villagers only brings pain and misery to their lives once the authorities catch wind of his presence. The almost impossible task of finding Father Ferreira is also questioned when it becomes clear that it is too dangerous to venture further into the country to search for him. It’s only Rodrigues’ faith that keeps him going in the midst of such pain until the moment when he is brought to Ferreira in person and finally given the opportunity to ask why his master no longer believes in Christ. Without spoiling too much, the scene where Garfield and Neeson meet is one of the strongest in the entire film. The pain of realising the truth of how his mission was a folly changes Rodrigues finally as he succumbs to the reality of his situation. But Scorsese does not let this dramatic change in character act as the film’s coda; there is far too much metaphor to allow us to simply accept Rodrigues’ own apostasy. Silence‘s ending is as thoughtful as the film’s overall message. The power of faith, and its ability to champion strength through oppression, hope over fear, is personified in Garfield. He is a man who manages to stay true to his inner beliefs despite all of his torturous circumstances. The pain of losing a mentor, a person who guided him to his own priesthood, emboldens Rodrigues in new ways. In essence, he becomes a sort of pragmatist in a foreign land.
There is also far too much subtext in Silence to cover in such a short review, but Scorsese doesn’t just rest on the laurels of the script. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography of the Taipei landscape is stunning, complimented intuitively by the minimal use of sound design. The barren world we first see in the film’s opening is in stark contrast with the more traditional scenes we see later when Rodrigues is imprisoned by the authorities. His cell is something akin to the opening of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with the usual shots of medieval Japanese towns providing a familiar aesthetic that moviegoers have come to expect from the period. The most memorable scene visually, for me, is during a crucifixion of Japanese Christians who are slowly drowned by the tide of the sea. The clarity of the water hitting the withered faces of the three actors present is mesmerising in its own dark way. The costumes and makeup are nothing short of stellar, particularly when capturing the unforgiving heat from the Sun glaring down at the cast. During Garfield’s many scenes in the newly-built wooden prison, there are more visual nods to Rashomon as the bright light from above turns the ground almost white from its intensity.
Garfield and Driver are excellent in their roles, particularly Driver, who perfectly fits the look of a 17th century Jesuit. Garfield at times seems misplaced in such a period feature, especially when his beard length increases, but the nuances he places into his several scenes of suffering make his pain truly heartfelt. Neeson steals the show in the brief moments he is present, but the power of his performance lies in how memorable his character is when offscreen. The expression of defeat on his face during the climax says everything that is needed, and Scorsese’s sparing use of such a talented actor is very wise. Although its running length can at times seem strenuous, the film’s central theme of faith allows us as an audience to contemplate Rodrigues’ dilemma with him. We are not rushed to a moral decision in a need to tie up the narrative’s loose ends, instead, we quietly observe his suffering with patience. Much like Rodrigues’ lord, we see the horrors performed on him and his fellow followers with a distant grimace, ever feeling but unable to help. Scorsese doesn’t extend the physical and mental torture for gory effect but allows us to travel with Rodrigues as a fellow partner through his ordeal as if we were with him in person.
Although its energy is low-key throughout, I feel that Silence is the director’s most personal work. Faith and God play important roles in Scorsese’s own life and here we get to watch a three-hour examination of his own ideas about the subject. By using the unique setting of the Tokugawa Shogunate, we learn about this brief, but tragic, period of history that few are aware of today. Japan’s Christian population is still very small, but the suffering many endured and paid the ultimate price for should be told, even if through the prism of a devout believer. It’s ending is a peaceful anti-climax, softly revealing the power that lies behind a belief system and the price one must pay for having it. The test for Rodrigues and Scorsese is not can they endure such faith, the test is can they accept it’s consequences, both good and bad. In Silence, the answer is challenging, much like faith itself.