Martin Scorsese’s Silence has moments of punishing brilliance scattered across a punishingly long and confusing film.
Religious films are always an interesting experience, because they can sometimes be masterpieces like Ben-Hur, or offensively flawed like The Passion of the Christ. The balance is in how preachy the ideology is, and in Silence, there is no defined line. I kept pushing back writing this review because I had a very hard time formulating proper thoughts on this movie. There are plenty of moments worth praising, but there is a confusing spirit throughout the movie that left me constantly disconnected.
Silence is Apocalypse Now set in 17th century Japan where Christianity has been outlawed by the ruling Shogunate. Portuguese Jesuit, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has been spreading Christianity in Japan for 15 years, has reportedly apostatized from his faith, and assimilated into Japanese culture. Two of his former pupils, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), hear of this rumor and refuse to believe it’s true. They take it upon themselves to enter Japan and find their lost mentor, and bring him back to the Catholic faith, while also spreading Christianity in Japan. As they embark on their mission, they witness countless atrocities committed by the oppressive Shogunate government, and face an inner battle within their own faith.
On a technical level, this film is nearly flawless. The shots that Scorsese sets up are mind blowing, capturing the natural beauty of Japan, while also making the viewer feel constantly on edge that there is a Samurai spy waiting to attack the Christian communities at any moment. The costume design is also gorgeous, with the vast colors of Nagasaki contrasting the bleak tones of the movie. Andrew Garfield’s performance as Rodrigues is absolutely Oscar-worthy. His confidence is continuously shattered as the movie goes on, and his inner battle with his faith is always present. Adam Driver as Garupe is a fine performance, but he has very little screen time and it’s always in Garfield’s shadow, and so his character is not given a very significant character arc to follow. Liam Neeson also has very little screen time, but his scenes are the most critical, and when he’s on screen, the impact is huge.
Silence, as a film, is very complex. Almost too much for its own good. Scorsese struggles to give the audience a character to sympathize for, even though he thinks it’s clear from the beginning. Who would ever side with a repressive government who tortures and murders innocent people who just wish to practice their faith in peace? Well for me, the issue lies in the practice of missionary work. The idea of coming into a well established civilization, and telling them that the European religion is the only truth, doesn’t sit well with me. Throughout the movie, I found it very hard to find a proper way to sympathize with Rodrigues as a character, because his motivation isn’t just to protect the already converted Japanese from the Shogunate, but he constantly refuses to understand how not everyone can believe in Christ when his own faith is so strong. While he has discussions with Samurai leaders over the Buddhist vs Catholic faith, Rodrigues just brushes off their philosophy and enforces the ideal that they must convert to Christianity in order to be saved, and a character that closed minded, is hard to sympathize with. But is that bad writing, or a very accurate portrayal of the Jesuits in the 17th century? Silence doesn’t say, and it left me constantly frustrated.
Many irreligious people are praising this movie because they can still admire the power of Rodrigues’s faith, along with the strong faith of the oppressed Japanese Christians. I can admire the faith of the Japanese Christians more, because they are following in Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s example, and allow themselves to die for them instead of for Christ. There is one scene in the first half where the Shogunate executes 3 Christians in a scene that is so hard to watch, it made me want to leave. The horror that these people went through, and still remained faithful, is something to admire, but it also caused me consistent frustration. The Shogunate makes it very easy for any captured Christian to be released; stomp your foot on an image of Christ, and you’re free to go. It seems like such a simple formality that one would think their God would allow it in order to stay alive, but their pride will not be shaken, even by a formality.
I’ve probably said too much on this by now, but I spent 2 days pondering this movie before I was able to put anything on paper. I highly recommend you see it, because even though I might not have liked it, it has made me think more than any other movie I’ve seen recently. Is Silence a good film? Yes. There’s too much worth praising to deny it that seal. Is it too complex to answer its own questions? Absolutely. But even then, it’s something to admire.
Today, Elliot is very frustrated.