Dir. Martin Scorcese

Screenplay. Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese (Based on Shūsaku Endō novel Silence)

USA, 2016

In Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited ‘passion’ project Silence, fog descends and recedes along this two-hour and forty-minute mission that is bound, no doubt, for several Academy Awards. This fog is, in one sense, figurative for the state of our protagonists who, borne aloft on their sense of religious superiority, arrive in a place that disorientates their certainties and threatens them both physically and existentially. Yet, in another way, it might also come to represent our own viewing experience, as we scramble uneasily through scenes of anguish and brutality while reaching for its deeper insight and meaning. Mostly, Scorsese evocatively draws out the prevailing theme of a crisis of faith in Japanese-Catholic writer Shūsaku Endō 1966 novel. Despite Scorsese’s fidelity and interpretation of the source material being assured and nuanced, the film can feel listless and obscure in significant periods. Consequently, this problematises the numerous torture scenes and unfortunately subdues the otherwise fascinating tension shown between a person’s conscience and their commitment to faith.

While the film is still typically focused on the white European leads in the midst of a spiritual crisis set against the backdrop of Japan and its people, it is refreshing to watch the missionary narrative be openly questioned and slightly upended.

The year is 1640, two young Portuguese Jesuit missionaries receive the rumour their former mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apostatised when Christianity is banned in feudal Japan. The daimyō decide to force the Christians and their priests to renounce their faith by stepping on effigies of Christ after executions only exult their martyrdom. Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), covertly enter the country with the help of the tragicomic Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) to discover the truth. The two idealistic priests are soon confronted with the unwashed reality of a terrified rural community that only dares to worship by night and risks hiding the clergymen. When the forces of regional Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) begin to weed out and punish the peasants, their belief in the existence of God is tested and the consequences of their presence in Japan weigh heavily.

Unlike Roland Joffe’s 1986 film The Mission, which sanctimoniously avoids these fundamental issues for the Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), Scorsese subtly conveys opposing perceptions of the characters’ actions and beliefs, whether they act as either an affirmation or repudiation of their faith. As such, acts of martyrdom, confession, apostasy, absolution, conversion and propagation of faith can be viewed as both meaningful and meaningless. When three peasants are crucified for refusing to apostatise, the unflinching portrayal is both symbolic of that selfless martyrdom embodied in that figure of Christ at his crucifixion (one peasants calls out to God -‘Deus’ as the waves crash against his frozen body) and an ignominious even wasteful act, as Scorsese cuts to the dead figure swinging unceremoniously from the cross, buoyed pathetically by the sea. Such antithetical interpretations are often parallel to each other throughout the film, challenging both theist and atheist in their presumptions of what these characters should do. After his clumsy portrayal of corporate excess in The Wolf of Wall Street, that careful, passionate director who deftly handled similarly conflicting themes in Taxi Driver and Goodfellas has returned on form here.

[Liam Neeson] easily gives his most engaging performance after years of carbon-copy, banal action roles.

Garfield, despite his wandering Portuguese-inflected accent, is unexpectedly affecting as Rodrigues. His naive and self-effacing persona fluctuates throughout, though it is when his character is slowly stripped of his idealism by the persistently debasing reality he finds himself in that Garfield really impresses.  Driver is also effective as a more despondent but, ultimately committed priest though he is sidelined to focus on Rodrigues’ journey and, surprisingly, is forgotten. Neeson easily gives his most engaging performance after years of carbon-copy, banal action roles (variations of ‘you take my wife, I take your life’). While convincingly reasoned and apparently settled in his new life in Japan, his averted gaze and raised brow lines, voice thick with regret when he speaks, betray an ongoing internal crisis that sets his words against his expressions. Neeson gives this brief, but important role real gravitas when exuding this disturbed presence.

Equally intriguing and fortunately nuanced is Ogata’s Inoue, despite his deceptive effeminate voice and toothy smile that threatens to wade into an Orientalist stereotype. With wry amusement he confronts Rodrigues’ convictions perceptively: ’The price for your glory is their suffering’. When Rodrigues sits before a panel of officials after being caught and they try to debate the inability for Christianity to integrate with Japanese national culture, the scene ends up demonstrating Rodrigues’ arrogance as much as the panel’s profane judgements and derision.’I bring the Truth’ he claims piously, with his interlocutor’s face falling slowly but understandably into exasperation with the young priest. Unlike the converted Guaraní people in The Mission, the Japanese characters are not so patronised here, instead there is a range of responses to the missionaries: from quiet, tearful reverence of the Kirishitan to open mocking and rejection by the citizens in Nagasaki and Rodrigues’ interpreter-tormentor (Tadanubo Asano).Their voices, whether raised in acceptance or rejection of Christianity, feature prominently alongside the lead characters who attempt to speak above or for them. While the film is still typically focused on the white European leads in the midst of a spiritual crisis set against the backdrop of Japan and its people, it is refreshing to watch the missionary narrative be openly questioned and slightly upended.

Scorsese’s direction with Rodrigo Preto’s cinematography and the Kluges’ sound design perfectly compliment the varying emotional tones and thematic content. There are the sustained, wide-angle shots of fog-covered mountains with only rustles, birdsong and wind, which entrance and unnerve with their natural, haunting beauty. This expanse descends into the confined, frenetic perspective shots when Rodrigues is incapable of helping his devoted followers facing torture locked in a wooden cage. All masterfully draw you into the experience in both a reflective and visceral way for most of the lengthy duration, never quite losing its sense of hostility and melancholy. And yet, at the beginning and especially in the film’s final act, the film feels oddly hazy and uncertain where the crises for our lead characters becomes subdued and attention wanders. The pace slackens and the tone becomes languorous. As such, the recurring depictions of suffering and intentionally-cruel tortures seem gratuitous as they attempt to fill an absence of meaning. These scenes feel uncomfortable not due to the infliction of pain upon human beings, but with Scorsese’s underhanded need for the audience to witness how shocking they are. Yet, it should be said these scenes are not equivalent to Tarantino or Kenji Misumi, these acts of violence or mutilation are not fetishistic or absurd when considered through the moral crisis that the film is centred around nor do they lack sensitivity. Though faithful to Endō’s novel, the film’s climax where the titular ‘silence’ of God is broken is also problematic, as Rodrigues’ public apostasy becomes the profound affirmation of his faith and commitment. It is a strangely deflating moment, though perhaps this is due to my own atheist persuasion and should not be so surprising considering Endō’s and Scorsese’s Catholic beliefs. The only qualm is that the dramatic tension and reflection from the sustained ambiguity and doubt is lost. It is entirely predictable that despite Rodrigues’ public renunciation, we witness that he has privately held on and is even emboldened in his beliefs in the film’s final scene.

Silence is not Scorsese’s masterpiece as others have readily claimed, but it is a perturbing experience that remains with you for long afterwards. Scorsese has created a difficult, dense film that is not easy to watch or recommend but his achievement certainly lies in drawing out the contradictions and allowing his audience to struggle in that ambiguity and dilemma. It will leave both those with and without religious beliefs heavy questions to contemplate, though necessarily without the vocal confirmation the film eventually offers. Instead, we must continue to struggle in that silence.