Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a serious, heartfelt and harrowing labour of love with compelling central performances and riveting subject matter. Like his much misunderstood The Last Temptation of Christ (which earned the ire of many Christians), it explores difficult questions of faith in a thought provoking way, although this time I hope Christian audiences will be more forgiving of his endeavours. Besides, frankly Silence is the better film.
Based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, the story concerns two seventeenth century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver). They secretly travel to Japan to locate their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumoured to have recanted his faith due to the horrific persecution of Christians in Japan at that time.
There are many things to admire here. Firstly, Scorsese’s restrained direction. He reins in much of his flashier techniques for a more measured, unfussy approach. The compositions of windswept shores and Japanese coastlands are both beautiful and also terrible, especially when they contain the torment and martyrdom of Japanese Christians. Boilings, burnings, beheadings, drownings and crucifixions are all horrifically present and correct, and as such it is worth warning that this is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those who do not want to grapple with deep theological questions, which are fascinating regardless of one’s faith or otherwise.
Performances are good, but I particularly want to single out Andrew Garfield, who really gets a chance to act his socks off in an extraordinary role. As he agonises over questions of God’s silence in the face of such appalling horrors, he convinces fully. There is something Apocalypse Now-ish about the way he tries to find Ferreria, who has done the equivalent of a Colonel Kurtz by becoming an apostate.
Speaking of apostasy, what exactly constitutes apostasy is another question this film grapples with. For instance, is it apostasy if you verbally recant but still believe in your heart? The Bible says God judges the heart, but it also says he who denies Jesus before men, Jesus will deny before his Father in heaven. The Japanese Inquisitors soon discover that Christians will not recant despite their efforts to dissuade them, so instead threaten to inflict painful deaths on others. Is it really so bad to tread on an image of Jesus to save the lives of those who would otherwise be tortured and killed? What would Jesus do in such a situation?
Whilst the audience ties itself up in theological knots, the brutality on display also reminds viewers of the terrifying choices faced by Christians under persecution, not all of whom are strong enough to stand firm in their faith. One character in particular recants, asks for forgiveness, recants again, asks forgiveness again, seemingly endlessly. His weak, fickle, all too human nature is something not only Christian audiences will painfully identify with. Who can be certain, under threat of such horrible death, that they would not recant?
Furthermore, the film proves a timely reminder of the ongoing persecution faced by Christians around the world (for example, in the Middle East where Christians are regularly executed by the obscenity that is ISIS). Silence is appropriately dedicated to Japanese Christians and their pastors.
It’s not perfect. Scorsese occasionally overreaches, such as in moments where Rodrigues sees the face of Jesus in water and on paving slabs. The bold ambiguity of the finale will also infuriate some. However, Silence is undoubtedly a sincere attempt to grapple with questions that ultimately cannot be definitively answered. I admire Scorsese’s courage to ask the questions that so many of my fellow believers will not ask.