“Step on me.”
My whole life has been movies and religion,” Martin Scorsese once said. Silence, Scorsese’s latest film, is the filmmaker’s word made flesh, the culmination of the master director’s work. More than a movie, Silence is a journey, a reflection on faith, a spiritual assault. This is a passion project for Scorsese — a film he’s been developing since 1990. But it’s also the film he was always meant to make. In some respects, it’s essentially the film he’s always been making: a film about suffering and pain driven by personal belief. “It’s all bullshit except the pain,” says Harvey Keitel’s character in Scorsese’s 1973 Mean Streets — a character prone to holding his hand over flickering church candles until he can feel the heat start to sear his flesh. “The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, you don’t fuck around with the infinite.”
Silence has no clear answers. Like its characters, it leaves its viewers to ponder; in the minutes that follow the film’s conclusion, we become enveloped by the quiet, wringing our hands and reflecting on what we’ve witnessed. A divine vision sent to us across the gulf of time, or a fever dream.
Adapted from the novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence opens on two 17th-century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), learning of the worrisome fate of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Father Ferreira had traveled to Japan on missionary work only to meet with brutal resistance from the Japanese government. Ferreria is believed to have apostatized, renouncing his faith to live, take a wife, and be one of the Japanese. Rodrigues and Garrpe refuse to accept this, declaring it little more than rumor. But, they reason, if it is true, that means Ferreria is damned, and it’s up to them to save the man and his soul.
A drunken, troubled man named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) agrees to take the two priests to Japan, and they arrive on the shore shrouded in mist, scrambling into a cave and huddling to stay warm. It’s not long before the priests are found by a group of Kakure Kirishitan, Christians who cloak their Christianity in secret and burn with a fervid faith so strong that it staggers Rodrigues. Finding Ferreria becomes almost an afterthought as Rodrigues and Garrpe tend to the religious needs of the villagers who’ve taken them in, and also of more Kakure Kirishitan living on a nearby island. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capture these early moments with grace and beauty. We are seeing this world through Rodrigues’ eyes, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker put us into the priest’s headspace with glimpses of portraits of Christ gazing out with wide, black eyes and close-ups of improvised religious paraphernalia — crosses mended together from grass and straw — clutched tightly in weathered hands. The moments with the villagers could almost be an entire movie on their own, but Silence has miles to go before it sleeps. Miles and miles.
When government agent Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) learns of the priests’ presence, he and his men set about torturing information out of the villagers. The Inquisitor offers the villagers what might seem, to some, a fairly simply way out. If the Christians simply step on a fumie, a plate with an image of Christ engraved on it, as a way of renouncing their religion, they will go free. “It’s just a formality,” one of the Inquisitor’s men helpfully offers. But to these pious individuals, it’s unthinkable, and to someone like Rodrigues it’s an impossibility.
Rodrigues and Garrpe go their separate ways for safety’s sake, but Rodrigues finds himself captured, and here his true trials and tribulations begin. A passion narrative unfolds with Rodrigues being besieged physically and spiritually, helpless to watch as other captured Christians are subjected to torture and even death. Rodrigues can save them — he can make it all stop. All he has to do is apostatize. But his captors might as well be asking him to give up oxygen; to shun the sun; to renounce life itself. This is well-worn territory for Scorsese. In the filmmaker’s underrated Bringing Out the Dead, an overworked EMT worker finds himself haunted by the ghost of one of the patients he was unable to save. “It’s not your fault,” she tells him near the end of the film. “No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea.” This statement lies at the very heart of SIlence. Why is Rodrigues choosing to suffer? And who is he suffering for? Does suffering in ways similar to Christ bring him closer to his Lord and Savior? Or is he suffering for something akin to pride? “Others suffer too,” a character later tells Rodrigues. “But they would never compare themselves to Christ.”
The film weighs on you, almost physically. You can feel the heaviness of the material pushing down on you as you watch Rodrigues’ internal and external struggle. Garfield delivers a harrowing performance, the best of his career. With a mane of hair recalling Willem Defoe’s in The Last Temptation of Christ, he looks the part of a suffering savior, but Rodrigues is purely mortal. He beats at his own chest and bruises. He can work no miracles. The only healing he can offer is in the form of words — and he worries the words are becoming increasingly more meaningless. Garfield conveys his agony and ecstasy beautifully, the pain and doubt and also the pride and faith etched across his face with conviction. The cast around him is strong too: Driver, as Garrpe, is underused but still memorable. We never truly see into Garrpe’s heart, but Driver is adept at laying bare his character’s soul and strong belief system: when Rodrigues tells a villager that it’s okay to apostatize and step on a fumie if it means saving his life, Garrpe looks shocked and furious at the suggestion. Yôsuke Kubozuka, as Kichijiro, provides occasional levity with frequent requests for confession and absolution, but the character is also inherently tragic, and the actor shines in balancing absurdity and tragedy. Issei Ogata, as Inquisitor Inoue, is neither hero nor villain, and Ogata clearly relishes playing to the grey area his character dwells in. But is perhaps Liam Neeson, as the missing Father Ferreira, who makes the biggest impression besides Garfield. Neeson can play a haunted man with ease, but there’s a weight and palpable sadness the actor brings to the part that’s somehow simultaneously cruel and devastating.
Since the film is almost entirely from Rodrigues’ point-of-view, it’s easy to look at Silence as primarily pro-Christian and decidedly anti-Japanese/Buddhist. But the script, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, subtly subverts this notion. The conversations Rodrigues has with his persecutors are civil and even reasonable, and while the torture and slaughter is unforgivable, there’s also the sense that Rodrigues has no sense of a culture other than the one he wants to hoist upon the Japanese. He believes that his religion can flourish in Japanese soil if only Inquisitor Inoue and his like would stop poisoning what’s growing. He doesn’t even consider that it’s not his place to assume his religion is what the Japanese need. But when Rodrigues is finally reunited with his missing, and much changed, mentor Ferreira, Ferreira counters that “Japan is a swamp,” and nothing the Jesuits plant could properly grow here.
Scorsese is not pushing a doctrine here. Silence is a religious film, but it’s not religious in the way that something like God’s Not Dead is. Silence does not want to answer questions. It does not want to proclaim the one true faith, whatever that may be. It wants its audience, like Rodrigues, to suffer and to question — and to be prepared to never hear an answer to that question. There is beauty in Silence, and there is devastation. There is a remarkable, seemingly never-ending search for the heart of faith and belief, and not be afraid of what is, or is not, found. Silence is a film that dares to fuck around with the infinite. It is Scorsese at the very height of his power. It will shake you to the core. Like a true religious experience, you will be in awe of what you’ve witnessed.