Having created a stellar body of work, Martin Scorsese has earned the right to put aside mainstream expectations from time to time. Scorsese, a spiritual person who in his youth studied to be a priest, made biblical issues resonate through profane classics such as “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun,” he followed his fervor as a filmmaker to tell stories about peaceful religious leaders in times of turbulent struggle.
He continues with “Silence,” which might be called a theological thriller. A devastating, demanding, heartbreaking film about Catholic faith and oppression in 17th century Japan, it works on more than one level, taking you on a far greater emotional journey and leaving you with more food for thought than any genre film in memory.
Based on the acclaimed 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, himself a rare Japanese Catholic, “Silence” concerns two idealistic young Portuguese Jesuits in a crisis of faith. Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are determined to travel to Japan to locate their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary who has fallen out of contact. After originally embracing Christianity, Japan has outlawed it, and the dictatorial shogun works to unroot almost all Western influence. It’s rumored that Ferreira publicly disavowed his religion under torture. He may be dead.
Ferreira’s former students doubt it all. Even though being a Christian in Japan is extremely dangerous, they set out to find him, protected (or so they believe) by their strong faith.
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Is it not preached that martyrdom is glorious?
They smuggle themselves to a remote ocean village where Japanese converts worship secretly and view the clerics’ appearance as something akin to a miracle. Scorsese’s use of fog, cloudy sunlight against the hills, campfire and muted natural sounds creates a foreboding environment reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s bravura historical films. It’s a place where Rodrigues and Garrpe hope to keep the light of Christianity burning.
The film becomes edgier in short order. The Jesuits look from their secret hiding place to see the villagers persecuted and brutalized by the shogun’s troops. Those who refuse to reject their faith by publicly trampling on the fumie, a bronze image of Christ, are killed.
The priests split apart to hide. Rodrigues becomes the central character as he embarks on an increasingly obsessive mission to understand a stark world laced with cruelty, futility and suffering. Is it his role as a priest to instruct believers to follow the path of Jesus and sacrifice their lives for him as he did for his flock? Or to encourage them to embrace blasphemy and survive?
The always fascinating Garfield is excellent once again as the determined yet vulnerable protagonist, capturing the anguished mind of Rodrigues and bringing him fully to life. He carries much of the film on his own shoulders, giving everything to the role, and it shows.
A bone-chilling counterweight comes from Issei Ogata as the shogun’s agony expert, Inoue, a specialist in boiling-water showers and seaside crucifixions. His smiling, legalistic lectures to Rodrigues about the cultural and spiritual discord Christianity would bring to Japan can’t be observed without thinking of countless other atrocities inflicted in the name of countless other religions. Ogata, a comedian, delivers steely calm and blithe arrogance in a mannered but magnetic performance.
“Silence,” co-written by Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Jay Cocks, presents deep questions and shuns answers. God’s refusal to reply when humanity suffers is an enigma that eludes understanding, and the film presents it in a way that speaks to the devout and nonbelievers alike. Scene by magnificently sculpted scene, the film lifts difficult themes to eye level and challenges us to unfold them. This is a religious film with no preaching, but it still is effective in what it sets out to achieve – a rare and outstanding accomplishment.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson.
Length: 2 hours 41 minutes
Rating: R for violence and torture.