The Catholic roots of Martin Scorsese have been explored in the director’s film throughout his career. For the past few decades, Scorsese has attempted to bring an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence to the big screen. After a number of stops and starts and significant casting changes, Scorsese has finally unveiled his version of Silence and it is a profound piece of filmmaking, a movie that at once extols the virtues of faith while simultaneously laying a thoughtful critique on the process of belief. Silence is another masterwork from a master filmmaker and stands as the best film of 2016.
In 17th Century Japan Christianity is outlawed. The faithful are rounded up and tortured if they refuse to denounce their faith. Two Portuguese priests, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), have gotten word that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who shepherded their faith through seminary, has apostatized after torture in Nagasaki. They refuse to believe that the man who taught them would renounce his belief and the two take a dangerous mission to Japan in order to see for themselves what happened to Father Ferreira. In Japan, they find a number of devout Christians who have been practicing their religion in secret and desperate for the council of an ordained priest. But there’s a price on the head of Christians and the price increases for priests, and the men of the Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) are always searching for those preaching the outlawed religion.
There’s a beauty to the Christian characters that worship in secret in the small villages of Japan. The town’s elder Christian Ichizo (Yoshi Oida) has kept his faith and keeps the close-knit community of Christians together, having everyone help to hide the priests and accommodate their needs. People like Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) live in constant fear of religious persecution and craft their own secretive artifacts of the forbidden symbols of the faith. These are people who have lost loved ones to religious persecution and retain their beliefs under great duress. When the Inquisitor’s men get word of the presence of the two priests, Ichizo and Mokichi sacrifice themselves for them; they’re subjected to crucifixion on the shores of the village, the waves pounding them for days before they succumb to death.
Then there’s the enigmatic character Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a lapsing Christian who apostatized to save his own life and witnessed the execution of his family. He’s a drunkard and guided the two priests to the shores of Japan. Kichijiro is quick to renounce Christianity when threatened but he always comes rushing back to his faith. He’s quick to betray others to save himself and then beg for forgiveness.
Some of the most impressive aspects of the screenplay by Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks is the delicate balance it strikes in presenting the perspective of the Japanese that are tirelessly trying to squash Christianity. A faith that empowers the peasants is a threat to the feudalist system that dominated Japan at that time. This isn’t simply a movie that is about Christian persecution as it is also about the arrogance of missionaries, believing all that they know is the one and only truth. Much of these thoughts are given voice by the interpreter (Tadanobu Asano), who gives cold lectures to imprisoned Father Rodrigues. Never does the film implore you to sympathize with the brutality employed by the Japanese nor does it present them as brutish thugs mindlessly persecuting a single religion. Right or wrong, they have a reason behind their actions.
At one point during his trials, Father Rodrigues says “The blood of martyrs are the seeds of the church.” It truly highlights the philosophical nature of Silence, one that questions whether suffering is truly a way to be closer to Jesus and whether or not that suffering is actually for religious faith or delusions of grandeur. In an attempt to make Father Rodrigues apostatize, Japanese Christians are tortured and slaughtered before his eyes, something that could be stopped (his captors say) if he would just renounce his religion. Father Rodrigues sees the visage of his savior in the suffering but even at a point he begins to question his role in the slaughter and suffering of the innocent. At once, Silence deals with the power that faith can grant one while at the same time expressing the doubt that so many have felt in those dark nights of the soul. Perhaps the most amazing coup of Scorsese’s career comes from the fact that Silence can’t be called pro- or anti-religion.
Andrew Garfield gives the best performance of his career, one that sees the actor going through an array of emotions under extremely stressful situations. Like much of the film itself, Garfield is able to capture great power from wordless moments as much as he can with impassioned speeches that question the nature of faith. As good as Garfield and Driver are, the real standout performances of Silence come the Japanese cast that Scorsese has assembled. Yôsuke Kubozuka is fantastic as the erratic Kichijiro, embodying the duality of the wildly frustrating character. The earnestness of Shin’ya Tsukamoto as Mokichi will bring you to tears as the Japanese farmer is prepared to die for his faith and to save the life of Father Rodrigues. It is Issei Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue who delivers the most striking performance of Silence, a menacing villain that will endure the test of time. He delivers his lines with high-pitched, nasally voice with an exaggerated lisp that is once comical and unsettling.
Working again with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese gives Silence a stunning look. One that consists of stunning vistas of natural beauty and fire-lit scenes of incredibly darkness. The fog that occupies the screen so often brings a sense of foreboding. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime editor, works seamlessly with the director to give Silence a magnificent sense of pacing. For two hours and forty minutes, Silence doesn’t move like a breakneck thriller but is never dull in the slightest, rapturing the audience in a human and moral drama with the looming threat of violence always hanging over the characters. The final shot of Silence is an all-timer, one that brings the events of the film to a fitting and powerful conclusion and possibly the best final shot in a movie since Scorsese’s last masterwork, The Wolf of Wall Street.
I’m a non-believer when it comes to religion but the events of Silence left me rapt. Martin Scorsese’s latest piece of cinematic brilliance should affect those who believe as much as those who don’t. The film hasn’t left my thoughts since I saw it. The moral and philosophical questions the movie raises have swirled in brain for days and I have no indication to believe that it will be departing my thoughts any time soon. Time and time again, Martin Scorsese proves himself to be among the greatest filmmakers to ever live and films like Silence are a stark reminder that the brilliant filmmaker can make compelling cinema of any sort, not simply just gangster pictures. Despite his reputation for making violent films, Scorsese crafts Silence with moments of violence that only serve the film’s philosophical musings and not just an exercise in excessive brutality like The Passion of the Christ. The questions raised by Silence will haunt your thoughts for days to come because it’s one of the year’s most powerful pieces of cinema, and I believe the best film of the year.