Shall we call it "magisterial"? That's as good a word as any for a movie that's this rich and rigorous and (not to put to fine a point on it) honestly great—and yet is also long, and slow, and coolly intellectual, occasionally to a fault.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese (based on the novel by Shusaku Endo)
With Andrew Garfield (Sebastiao Rodrigues), Adam Driver (Francisco Garupe), Yosuke Kubozuka (Kichijiro), Tadanobu Asano (The Interpreter), Issey Ogata (Inoue Masashige), and Liam Neeson (Cristovao Ferraira)
So now I know what they meant when they said it: Martin Scorsese's Silence, for all its minor flaws (not to mention its questionable status as an entertainment), will nonetheless stay with you. Of course, that's only if you've seen it in the first place—which, as statistics show, you almost certainly have not. Indeed, until I saw it myself (on the very last screening at my local theater), I'd been confused by its inability to make any inroads with, at the very least, the Christian filmgoing audience. They get so little that even tries to be good. You'd expect that something that did would fall upon them like—well, like manna from Heaven. Suffice it to say, I'm no longer confused. I doubt it came as much of a surprise to those who made it, either; the strikes against it as a commercial venture, after all, are legion.
Above everything, Silence is a document of Christian faith, which leaves out the majority of the secular audience already, insofar as they couldn't give less of a shit; making matters worse, it's a document of Christian faith made by people too smart and too honest to ever brainlessly pander to all the Americans who turn things like God's Not Dead into baffling sleeper hits—which leaves out the audience who'll watch virtually anything even vaguely about Jesus just so long as it's in color and appeals to their persecution fantasies, the latter of which Silence explodes completely, from the inside out.
Yet Silence is also an historical epic, one determined to dramatize the Christian struggle against a gruesome (and actually real!) form of historical oppression. Despite that (but befitting its title), Silence is so very quiet about it that, by the end, you're not entirely convinced that there's still any struggle left in it at all. And this leaves out, in addition to the regular crowd, all those cognitively normal Christians, too—that is, the ones who aren't all stupid or crazy, but nevertheless still crave another dose of the cathartic shivers, such as was offered them by The Passion of the Christ. (Or Scorsese's own Last Temptation of Christ, for that matter, assuming they ever managed to get to the end of the thing without setting the disc on fire.) Silence is much subtler in its effect. Though it anchors itself firmly to its hero's tormented point-of-view, we are here to observe, not to vicariously suffer alongside him—much as he is here to observe the suffering of those he claims to love.
So, while there are shocking moments of violence to be found in Silence, there is not much of the truly visceral about it. The terrible things that happen in Silence happen to people we barely know, and have not been made to especially care about beyond their basic humanity; and when they happen, they happen mainly to remind us that horror and death are the wages of faith and pride alike, so that the only one who really knows what was in the martyr's heart is the martyr. It may easily make you shed a tear—but Silence is about dismantling you, not destroying you, let alone about letting you feel good about your destruction. And I guess this leaves out practically everybody, because Silence is not a movie that's here to reaffirm your faith, or to be easy on you; and, yes, if Silence doesn't quite go all-out, and simply assume that you already share its viewpoint, it absolutely does assume that you at least have an abiding interest in its questions.
Finally, then, Silence is a Scorsese movie; and while it is very possibly his most personal film, the culmination of three decades' work, it's maybe also his single least characteristic. And so that leaves out even the Scorsese fans, who have been confronted with this, his motionless picture, one almost implausibly slow to unfold its simple story and digressing every single chance it gets in order to continue exploring its ethical quandary for just a little bit longer.
In the meantime, the hallmarks of the Scorsese style—the ambitious cross-cutting, the kinetic pacing, the Hulked-out masculinity, the complex tracking shots, the punchy humor, and (especially) those eyebrow-raising soundtrack choices (especially, because Silence boasts instead a minimalist soundscape aiming to reflect the voice of God within the noises of nature, rather than anything you might even be particularly inclined to call "a score")—these are all stripped away. Left in their place is an imposingly beautiful thing, committed to visualizing Japan (played in Silence by Taiwan) as existing within the literal mists of history. And so something like half the exterior shots in Silence take place inside the fog bank from Ugetsu; and the rest do Kurosawa-by-way-of-Malick, an austere visual partner to its grass-rustling-and-crickets-chirping sound mix, underlining the possible truth of the pantheistic notion forwarded later in the film, by a character who once held very different views. But fair is fair. Scorsese's unflagging love for voiceover narration surely remains intact; and when Scorsese commits to the film's one genuinely out-there stylistic conceit, you'll damned well know it when you see it.
But either way, what we're left with is still a movie where the biggest clues to it being a Marty Scorsese joint are the 161 minute length, the idiosyncratic Catholicism, and (because this is the real giveaway) the bare fact that it got made at all.
I'm so glad it did.
It's his most Catholic film of all, Catholics say—though, in my outsider status, I can't agree, given that Last Temptation nearly requires you to be Catholic, if only to be properly provoked by its heresies. But you get the gist: Silence takes its protagonists' priestly worldview as a given. It's more intellectually accessible as a result (its themes of intolerance and self-aggrandizement are universal, and timely, in a way that Last Temptation's journey through the doctrine of the Trinity, of course, is not). But, by the same token, it's rather less humane. Perhaps, then, it deserves a slightly different superlative: merely Scorsese's best Catholic film.
Broadly, Silence tells the story of the last days of the Christian missionaries in Japan. And, right there, it's already asking a lot. No opening text crawl for you, my historically illiterate friend—and little to place the events of the film in their proper context, which is that in the 16th century, dueling Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, each partially beholden to their respective nations' imperial designs, made inroads into war-riven Japan, creating a self-sustaining community of believers that numbered 300,000 at its height—and which numbered rather less by the mid-17th century, when we actually begin our tale. But then, throwing you into the deep end of a bygone era (and trusting you to make the connections between that era and our own) is precisely what Silence hopes to do; it's a movie where a character, without any evident irony, refers to the 1633rd year of the "Pax Christi"—which is to say, the fifteenth year of a famously thirty year-long war, being waged mostly to determine if Christians could kill each other off altogether.
What matters, as far as Silence is concerned, is that Tokugawa Japan, like most places in the 17th century, or ever, was an awful place to be a religious dissenter. And we needn't belabor here what the film already makes quite plain in its subtext, which is that the European Catholics were glory-seeking interlopers; nor need we belabor what Silence makes even plainer than that, in its there-for-all-the-world-to-see text, which is that the Shogunate's outsized, genocidal reaction to the Christian minority within its jurisdiction, driven by a delusional brand of xenophobia and the filthiest kind of power-politics, was a crime against all humankind.
That brings us, then, to the Year of Our Lord 1633, where we briefly attend to one Cristovao Ferraira, brought out to witness the torture of his fellow Jesuits. This is our introduction to a man whom we shall not see again for nearly another two hours, and our perspective shifts abruptly to Macau, seven long years later. Here we find two of Ferraira's former students, Sebastiao Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, called into their superior's office, to hear the recitation of a rumor. Their long-lost teacher has succumbed at last to the pains lavished upon him by the Japanese authorities, they're told, and he's gone native, betraying his Church and God in the process. Neither man believes a word of it, and they resolve to find their former master—for even if it is true (though it cannot be true), then it remains their duty to at least try to reclaim his soul.
Their Conradian quest thus established, Rodrigues and Garupe make their way to Japan, guided by the drunken expatriate, Kichijiro. Kichijiro's loud protestations of heathenness mean that he shall soon be revealed as an apostate Christian, with his own sorrowful story to tell; meanwhile, his erratic nature and general untrustworthiness mean that it's only a matter of time before he betrays his newfound co-religionists, too.
For now, however, the Jesuits can make no immediate headway in their search for Ferreira; instead, when they're welcomed warmly by the Hidden Christian villagers who have maintained their faith, but have been bereft of its sacraments, the priests content themselves with the day-to-day joys of Christian ministry in a country where their very existence is outlawed. Their arrival cannot remain a secret for long, of course, and the Shogun's "inquisitor" descends upon the villages they've visited, ferreting out the Hidden Christians with his fumi-e, graven images of the Christ and Mary, which the peasants are invited to stamp upon, revealing their true beliefs when they hesitate. Ultimately, three men wind up crucified for their fidelity to their God—but even at this extremity, the villagers do not betray themselves, or their priests, watching on mutely, the silence broken only by a hymn sung by the last of the condemned to die. No, betrayal still belongs to Kichijiro—enriched to the tune of 300 silver pieces for his sin (Rodrigues notes duly that the price has gone up since A.D. 33)—and so, when Rodrigues and Kichijiro leave for the Goto Islands, hoping to find Ferraira, Rodrigues instead finds himself in the inquisitor's clutches. And here, as they say, his troubles begin.
It's fair to say that Silence is bookended by its problems. The epilogue that closes it out begins well enough, as a montage narrated by a Dutch merchant years after the fact, doing well to deepen the ambiguity of the events that lead up to it, and Silence closes on a suitably powerful final frame. But it accomplishes in twenty minutes what it could've done in five, and you really do feel the time slipping away by the end. Meanwhile, the establishing act, going on an hour, is probably necessary. But it's awfully repetitive, too, spending a positively enormous amount of time depicting, well, just how bog-stupid the Hidden Christians apparently are—to the extent that one couple, having just baptized their child, asks the Jesuits if they'll take it to Paradise now. It may be the only serious disappointment that Silence provides.
Truly, I don't know if it says something about Christianity, or just about Scorsese, who made God a man in Last Temptation, that Silence's characters are more compelling and complete the less pure and single-minded they happen to be. Take Kichijiro, given life by Yosuke Kubozuka (doing a fine impression of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai), who gets some of the choicest moments in Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks' adaptation of Endo's novel: the tragicomedy of his endless return to Rodrigues' side, to secure the absolution that the disgusted priest unfailingly provides; the outright tragedy of his family's execution; and, most significantly, the brutal truth Kichijiro reaches when he cries that if he had lived in another time, another place, where he didn't have to make any choice between living and believing, then he'd have been good—and God never would've known the difference. (And, on the other side, it'd be a real sin to ignore what Issey Ogata and Tadanobu Asano brought to the table here, as our good Christians' persecutors. Each toys with a certain brand of bureaucratic sadism—especially in contrast to the incarnate banality of their subordinates, who patrol the countryside and force peasants to stand on pictures of Jesus with all the passion of a traffic cop writing out a speeding ticket. But Ogata in particular, while perhaps not giving Silence its best performance, is at the very least giving it its most flamboyant. Not exactly a high bar, of course, but Ogata's squeaky voice and kindly manner, juxtaposed against his blatant cruelty, give Silence a jolt of bizarre, off-center energy, of a kind that its first hour has not in the least prepared you for. Ogata is astonishingly effective at filling out a character who is, essentially, The Last Temptation's Devil—even better, though, because this time the Devil has a point. Not for nothing do they call him, like his Christian counterparts, the "inquisitor." It's a palpable jab at the Catholic penchant for forcing their own conversions, of course; but here it's just as meaningful that the word "inquisitor" literally only means "the one who asks.")
Still and all, if Silence isn't terribly interested in explicating the dull piety of any Hidden Christian not named Kichijiro, then its disinterest is no mistake—for Silence, as we eventually discover, is Rodrigues' film, and Rodrigues is willing (even embarrassingly eager) to treat every Japanese he encounters as yet one more human prop in his own, personal passion play. The Hidden Christians thus become his Disciples; Kichijiro, his Judas; the inquisitor, his Pilate. And now we arrive upon the flawless film in the middle of Silence, that begins when Rodrigues is captured and taken to Nagasaki, and continues with his devastating reunion with Ferraira—who remains on hand to counsel poor Rodrigues through the final trial of his faith, which does not end well, for whether he chooses surrender or defiance, he must face one damnation or the other.
This is where the film's real power lies: in Rodrigues' slow groping toward grace. But the priest is ever the recipient of lectures, not tortures. Those fall solely upon his flock—who do suffer and die, victims of the inquisitor's elemental punishments, the Shogunate's tortures evoking fire, water, wind and earth in turn. Only the void (translated, sometimes, as heaven) remains to complete the classical elements of Japanese philosophy; and, of course, that is precisely the torture the inquisitor inflicts upon Rodrigues.
Andrew Garfield, in his second faith-inflected role of 2016, acquits himself with honor. You wonder if another actor might've found more of an emotional hook for Rodrigues—Adam Driver is standing right there, for example—but he is good. No such waffling when it comes to Liam Neeson, however. In terms of screentime, his role scarcely amounts to cameo; but in terms of hanging over the film like Kurtz, his presence is inimitable. And when he does finally show up again, Ferraira's hollowed-out man of equivocation quite possibly represents Neeson's best turn since the last reel of Schindler's List.
The question that Rodrigues' interlocutors keep asking, in so many different ways, is whether the Christians are dying for Christ, or if they're dying for Rodrigues—who could, after all, end their torment at once, with a simple gesture of apostasy, nothing more profound than stepping on Jesus' face. (He's taken worse.) It's here that Silence is so subtly moving, examining in the most concrete terms possible the moment when martyrdom becomes arrogance, when piety becomes a sin—when apostasy, when borne like a cross, becomes a virtue. And Rodrigues is left to grapple with this question for the longest time, in the vast silence where he expected his God to be, while Scorsese cages us within Rodrigues' intellectual grasping, in the film's second-most formally interesting conceit—often constraining the wide 2.35:1 frame into boxy rectangles, bounded on either side by the physical bars of Rodrigues' prison, while he and we watch all the bad things happen that he has not yet decided to stop.
Silence challenges the narcissism of the zealot—in an enormously literal way. It challenges it; it demolishes it. For when Rodrigues sees an image of the Christ in his own reflection, he can misinterpret that as a sign that he's been called to sacrifice if he wants, but we know better. And it is the most fascinating thing, Rodrigues' vision of God—taken, directly, from El Greco's The Veil of St. Veronica.
By a far margin, that is Scorsese's weirdest gambit here. After all, we certainly remember when Rodrigues condescended to his flock and their obsession with the gee-gaws of Catholicism (crosses, icons, even the beads of his rosary); we remember, too, when he asked whether they pray to God or merely to His symbols. But when Rodrigues sees God, he sees nothing but the artifice, either—a damn painting that's barely older than he is. Moreover, it's not even an image he venerates; it's an image of an image, a representation of a relic of the stations of the cross. "Veronica" can be broken down, etymologically: "vera icon," "the true image"—but, obviously, Scorsese's punishing CinemaScope close-up of a painting of a veil with a face on it is just about the last thing you could ever call "true." It's an outrageously bold move, and a splendidly pretentious one. Even if Scorsese claims that he simply liked the gentle-yet-sphinxlike expression on the Greco Jesus' face, I really doubt it was an accident: by its violent contrast with its stately, realistic surroundings, it completes Silence's argument for him. The Greco Jesus forces us to ask how any man knows the ineffable. Scorsese's answer (intentional or not), is that no man can. Yet, for all that, it's still worth trying.
Silence's silence is broken, in the end—though the provenance of the voice that issues out of the emptiness is left to your imagination. What we have is a film that grapples with what it means to believe in God; it cautions those who do to not confuse their own desires with His. It shall no doubt be exactly as effective in communicating that lesson to those who don't want to hear it as all such pieces of art have been over the centuries—which is to say, not effective at all, even if anybody had made the effort to see it in the first place. But it was worth trying, and Scorsese has earned all the admiration in the world for the strength of his attempt.