Religion and Hollywood rarely mix, partly because each has its different sense of morality, that religion is a private thing to many, and hence it’s rarely a money-maker when people want to be entertained and not to be challenged too much, to not proselytise or provoke complex existential questions. They used to be terrified about what happens when it all goes wrong: Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at a religious epic, The Last Temptation of Christ met the ire of many Christian communities, many countries banned it, and even a terror attack in France was committed in opposition, due to its narrative/character experimentation. Things have changed (slightly), even looking past the mega success of the blood-soaked The Passion of the Christ, producers are seeing the potential revenue coming from Christian audiences in the United States and around the world. In one corner, God’s Not Dead and PureFlix’s other, right-leaning Christian films take in audience’s cash whilst working with their audience’s political leanings. Hollywood, instead of treading into the murky political waters that PureFlix works with, decided to be Hallmark-card aspirational within their own Christian bubble, with Sony’s Heaven is for Real and The War Room (Sony’s production company is literally called Affirm Pictures), and Lionsgate’s upcoming The Shack joining the fray, where people can feel spiritual within a safe set of perimeters of experience. However, it must be said that many of these films are catering towards the faithful, and struggle to connect to wider, secular audiences.
Silence, an adaption of Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed novel, is not one of these films. It will be a struggle to both faithful believer and pragmatic unbeliever, as it is more art-house, and more personal to Scorsese than much of his other work. It aims to challenge anyone who sees it, especially when the subject matter is about Jesuit priests and their experiences of Japanese persecution in the 17th Century. More akin to the European religious film-making tradition of Robert Bresson and Carl Th. Dreyer, with nods and homages to classic Japanese cinema of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the film is contemplative, slow and action wise, very quiet. Set in the late 1630s, this historical drama’s truest act of endurance is not seeing the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians, tied to crosses in a lagoon and left to be drowned by the high tide, that Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) witness from a high mountain perch, but its two-hour and forty minutes run-time. What Silence is seeking, is to show doubt in action, the cost of belief for both society and the individual. While the film’s premise based on a ‘two man army’, sent to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly forsaken the faith and become ‘Japanese’, lost in a secretive land hostile to outsiders (particularly Catholic priests), the film isn’t about trying to save Ferreira’s soul, it is about the search through darkness in our own souls. It is the difference between devotion to a creed and the love of the mystery beyond.
The whole film participates in the act of destroying preconceived notions of faith, so presents huge questions: where is God, when in the silence we find no answers, and face unending loneliness? Is the conviction of our beliefs that important, when they could be the cause of the pain to others? This dread, this pregnant silence could only be created by Andrew Garfield’s complex and involving performance. We can feel the arrogant walls that he has built around himself being destroyed, as Rodrigues’ trials lead him to the edge of madness. The progress of the film feels like a refining fire, where his Jesuit armour (mental armour and his Western identity) is changed, destroyed and rebuilt continually, also reflected by the elegant costume design by Dante Ferretti. The film does use narration as a crutch, maybe too much at times from Rodrigues’ perspective, Scorsese just needed to focus on Garfield’s face to tell a story, that we know he is searching for God. Some would wish this film to be a simple, a tale of persecution leading to redemption, a tug at the heartstrings, to feel that everything works out at the end. At times you will want to feel that, a transformative experience, that you’ve gone through the pain of seeing very likeable, honourable Japanese peasants like Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) singing a hymn as he slowly dies to absolute silence. We want to have answers. The film shows that there is no beauty in the pain, and a sort of black comedy too, but a transformative experience? This film is doesn’t want to, because to give that to you would be a lie, the film wants to pull you away from vestments, to pull you away from tradition.
In the first act, Rodrigues and Garupe seem to be masters of the universe, who seem bemused and shocked by the absolute attention that the Japanese Christians give them. They give them back their religious sacraments, their mass and confession, which for non-Catholic audiences may seem alien, laughable even as the question of fumie, the act of apostatising your faith by putting your foot on a metal image of Christ, seems like the easiest thing to do to get out of sheer death in today’s world. The film even allows you to have an alternative reading of Garfield’s character ‘going insane.’ However, when Rodrigues gives them pieces of his regalia (breaking his rosary to give people single beads from it), he highlights his concern that they worship the objects instead of God, a concern shared by the film. So, as the run-time continues, their Catholic faith becomes more understandable, more relatable, and when the priests are separated (Adam Driver’s performance is good for a character that seems to not change that much), the trial makes Rodrigues’ faith feel more real, the film more engaging in its simmering slowness, as the desperation becomes a terrible fever pitch in Garfield’s eyes.
The film also works to make Rodrigues’ captors more humane and understanding as the film goes on. This isn’t a simple black and white tale. They’re more reluctant torturers, who chide Rodrigues with their own philosophies, with which some audience members may be able to sympathise. Issey Ogata’s Inquisitor is darkly hilarious, all-knowing but also incredibly petty in his power, that hints at the contemporary socio-political situation, while Tadanobu Asano’s Interpreter almost acts, in Christian terminology, as the accuser, who brings very well-reasoned points against Rodrigues’ beliefs, and seeks to make him accept his point-of-view. This alien country is both understandable, and more and more perplexing to Rodrigues, which is even reflected by the naturalistic photography, blended with chiaroscuro and vertigo zooms. Some of Scorsese’s techniques can be very surprising in the midst of slow-moving scenes, for example, the sound of nature can be overwhelming as it seems to even blur out dialogue, and when Rodrigues is in prison the frame is made to look as restricted as Rodrigues is, that we can’t exactly tell what is coming next. Peaceful scenes of beautiful photography by Rodrigo Prieto, almost contrasts the violence of Christians being burned, drowned and hung in anazuri (people bled upside down and head buried underground). It also demonstrates the two sides of the contrasting philosophies, as the film acts as a strange form of didactic process, showing truest faith or compromise depending on how you view it.
Scorsese is still a master filmmaker, and with this new film goes further to establish this fact. It isn’t a typical film from him, as the extent of his abilities seem to still be unpredictable and evolving, as he forsakes the flashiness of The Wolf of Wall Street for seemingly the exact opposite: meditativeness. Elliptical to the point it feels like a repeating meditation, we feel that it is slowly growing and growing in its argument, as the truth of Liam Neeson’s character’s fate is revealed and the tension mounts (he threatens to tip-over the film with his star-power, but holds back enough to be crucial to the film). It finally culminates at the finale, with the ultimate moral contrary that will make you think for much longer than the length of the film. These thoughts may be more enjoyable to explore than to view, as it feels more like a cerebral experience than an emotive one.
Silence is best illustrated by the journey the priests have with Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a tragic-comic figure described as a Judas figure in many other reviews, we can also see him as having elements of Peter-esque figure; one that continually comes back and leaves the Lord in spite of his protestations of apology. He tests Rodrigues’ patience as a confessor, from passive superiority and annoyance, but then Silence is about seeing about how a man could love God who doesn’t stop pain, but living the pain with the believer, and who in spite of the silence, to love. To err is human, to love, divine.
RATING: FOUR STARS.