By CHRISTIAN LEDFORD, Staff Writer
During the Japanese Edo Period, lasting from the early 17th century to the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century, Christianity was relentlessly oppressed within the Japanese shogunate, with Christians persecuted and killed by the thousands. While today we don’t associate Japan with religious persecution, the 1600s were markedly different; the Japanese church was driven into hiding, forced to exist as Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians.”) Prolific director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, a work of historical fiction, takes place in this period.
Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by author Shūsaku Endō (a Japanese Christian himself), Silence follows Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (played by Adam Driver,) two young Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in 1633 to locate their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson.) Word has reached them that Ferreira, while attempting to convert the Japanese to Christianity, has allegedly renounced his faith under torture and now lives in exile in Japan. Knowing the journey threatens them with death, the two travel across the world to find their old friend and, they hope, prove rumors of his apostasy false.
Guided by a Japanese beggar named Kichijiro (played by Yōsuke Kubozuka), an apostatized former Christian, they make their arrival in Japan to find a world governed by fear and anxiety; Christians worship and pray in the dead of night, terrified of discovery by the Japanese authorities. Crusades of terror, carried out by a man known as the Inquisitor (played by Issey Ogata), see suspected Christians forced to publicly apostatize. Those who refuse suffer awful fates of public martyrdom. Rodrigues and Garupe enter into this deadly world with hearts set on conversion of the Japanese and finding Ferreira, yet as the brutality and persecution they witness wear on, we see the devout men languish in their faith. Is all this suffering for naught? Are their efforts and faith in vain? Is God listening to their prayers? As the pair struggle through these existential crises, the audience ponders these questions alongside them.
Silence is a difficult film to watch. Throughout the nearly three-hour runtime, we see hangings, beheadings, crucifixions, and more, all suffered by the innocent. In excruciating detail we see innocent men and women of faith tortured and murdered. By no means does the film revel in or glamorize suffering, yet Scorsese effectively uses the violence of the film to punctuate the deeper themes of Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s doubts of faith and their perseverance through pain. As the film goes on, it grows impossible to not be personally affected by suffering witnessed on screen.
Speaking of Scorsese, the direction we see in Silence is masterclass; while the film certainly takes its time with its story and characters (the film clocks in at 161 minutes,) no scene feels wasted, with each moment and every bit of dialogue serving to further develop the internal struggle of the characters we follow and pose further existential quandaries for the audience to sort through. The scenes of tension are incredibly tense. The scenes of emotion pierce to the core. Despite Scorsese’s decades-long directorial career that includes films like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and Gangs of New York, this film may be one of his very best.
The film’s performances are all dedicated and enormously impacting. Andrew Garfield’s performance as Rodrigues, who becomes the central character, is nothing short of spectacular as Garfield acts with a masterful range of emotion that endears him to the audience. As Rodrigues searches for Ferreira and grapples with his pain, Garfield pours himself into the character and acutely showcases a man witnessing the destruction of everything he’s ever believed in. (Never again will I disregard Garfield as an actor simply because of the mediocre Amazing Spider-Man films.) Adam Driver is superb as well, providing an interesting foil to Rodrigues in his performance as Garupe. While Rodrigues languishes over the oppression they see and cries out to their silent God, the fervent Garupe asserts that they simply aren’t faithful enough and God requires more. The emotional fortitude of Driver’s performance is impressive.
Issey Ogata is nothing short of terrifying as the Inquisitor, the film’s villain. While the Christians he victimizes burn at the stake or drown, Ogata’s Inquisitor holds a constant sickening rictus of a smile, delighting in the suffering of each and every believer he sentences to death. In this fashion, Ogata gives a truly unnerving and sadistic performance. Last, yet certainly not least, Liam Neeson anchors the film with his convincing performance as Father Ferreira. When we finally see the character again, Neeson utilizes surprisingly dynamic range to show a broken man completely removed from who he used to be.
As the final act of the film comes and Father Ferreira is found at last, we’re given a truly agonizing ending when a specific character is forced to make a difficult choice that will likely leave most of the audience in shock. Afterward, the film ends ambiguously; there are no answers given to the questions posed by the film or its ending as the audience is left to work through them on their own. Did this character make the right choice? Was this a betrayal or a sacrifice? What would we have done in their place? As I drove home from the theater in utter silence, I pondered these questions and realized I couldn’t easily answer any of them.
Silence is a remarkable departure from modern Christian films. Whereas most, such as the stereotypical God’s Not Dead franchise, serve to be little more than theological propaganda with one-note characters and painfully unsubtle themes that set out to do nothing except preach to the choir, Martin Scorsese’s film does not. Instead, Silence is a breathtaking film with emotional performances that demands introspection and deep analysis, and because of this it joins the ranks of rare truly great Christian films such as the beautiful Passion of the Christ. I rate Silence as 9/10.
Silence is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.