If you know that Martin Scorsese, early in his life, wanted to be a priest, you can understand why one of his passions was bringing Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence to the screen. It is about Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan, and their struggle to avoid apostatizing themselves in the face of persecutors.
This is a stunning film, both visually and intellectually. Within there is a mini-course on theology, and while some scenes seem redundant (there is a bit too much torture and execution for my tastes–we get it) it is almost always gripping, despite it’s near three-hour length.
Silence follows a familiar trope in films, from The Searchers (one of Scorsese’s favorite films) to Saving Private Ryan–the search and rescue film. A priest, played by Liam Neeson, is forced to apostatize (that is, renounce his faith) by the inquisitors of Japan, who are Buddhists and outlaw Christianity. Word of this reaches the head priest in Macao (Ciaran Hinds). Both of these characters, I was interested to read, were real people.
Hinds briefs two young Jesuits (who are fictional and played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). They don’t believe that Neeson has given up his faith, and are determined to track him down, even though it is highly dangerous for them to set foot in Japan. They go anyway, led by a guide (Yosuke Kubozuko) who has apostatized many times, and will many times again, believe he can be absolved by confession. The two priests find a small community of Christians living in hiding.
The title Silence comes from the fundamental trouble with the priests; faith–why is God silent in the face of such suffering? It also shows how Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is rooted in suffering, and that the promise of paradise after death comforts those that are suffering. It becomes a test, led the inquisitor (a very good Issey Ogata), and a simple one–deny your faith, and you will go free. If you do not deny it, you will die. He takes this further after Garfield is captured–if he will renounce his faith, Ogata will let many Christians go free. If Garfield refuses, they will be killed.
The film, while at times being very violent, is mostly talk. There are many conversations about faith and absolution–between Garfield and Driver, Garfield and Ogata (their conversations are central to the film) and then a stunning scene between Neeson and Garfield, where Neeson explains why Christianity can not take hold in Japan (today only about one percent of Japan is Christian). In a way, Silence is like My Dinner With Andre with the topic as religion with the chance that one of their heads will be cut off.
The acting is impressive. Garfield has had a good year, with this film beside Hacksaw Ridge, in two very different roles (though both about devout men). Driver, who suddenly seems to be all over the place, has a smaller role but I think a more interesting one, as he plainly struggles more with his faith, while Neeson really only has a cameo but knocks it out of the park. The Japanese actors are all terrific, especially Ogata, who is a man who smiles as he tells you you will be tortured.
Silence has a few false endings, but I think ends with the right shot, which I certainly won’t reveal here. I think how one views the film will depend on their own religious beliefs. As a nonbeliever, I kind of felt sad that so many people went to hideous deaths out of a sense of duty to Jesus Christ, but at the same time I had to admire their courage. I would have said anything to stay alive, but just crossed my fingers behind my back.