It’s a reasonable assumption that your attitude towards Silence before seeing the film may also be coloured to your attitude towards religion. Say to anyone on their way to see a movie that it is nearly three hours long and about religious belief, set in Japan in the 17th Century, and you might find them reconsidering their choice. But to do so would be to sell the film short. That’s not to say that the subject matter may not provide much satisfaction to an atheist, but that it offers some kind of explanation for religious devotion which the viewer can take or leave.
Indeed, the film itself can be read in more than one way. Some might say that it’s a depiction of the pointless adoration of religion – the “silence” being the returning gift of the God to whom the protagonists pray. Others may say that the depiction of that continued faith shows all that is beautiful about religion. Or it could be a bit of both. Martin Scorsese, the director and co-writer of the film, was raised in a Roman Catholic but considers himself lapsed. But clearly the biblical and religious themes intrigue him as can be seen from his humanistic depiction of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. And, again, it’s reasonable to assume that since the film premiered in Vatican City, the broadly positive message about belief in Christ and the Christian church is part of the intention, whichever way the viewer chooses to take it.
Silence is a adapted from a novel of the same name written by Shūsaku Endō in the mid-1960s. Scorsese had apparently been developing the project for 25 years, what in the film-making world would be best described as a long time. It has, incidentally, been filmed twice before though, but Scorsese is not adverse to having another crack at stories already committed to celluloid or pixels by others.
The film concerns two Jesuit priests travelling to Nagasaki in the mid-17th Century to find and recover their mentor, who long ago was taking the “good news” of Christianity to Japan when the Japanese authorities decided to carry out an inquisition and convert everyone back to Buddhism. Or kill them. The mentor has long ago gone missing, with the only news of him being that he renounced the church to stay alive. These two priests have to stay in hiding and celebrate their faith in secret with the people on the island who were earlier converted and now living in fear for their lives. For the extended length of the movie not a great deal more than that really happens, although that’s not to say it is excessive, or even tedious. The understanding of the commitment required towards a religion which, seemingly, gives nothing back but hardship and pain is at the crux of Silence. Why do these people commit? What is it about their belief which nourishes them? For an atheist viewer it is something both fascinatingly well depicted, but also utterly baffling. In many cases the story of the film is more about the battle of faith than it is about reinforcing Catholic doctrine. Adam Driver’s Father Francisco Garrpe is the more dogmatic of the two, with Father Sebastião Rodrigues, as played by Andrew Garfield more willing to allow the faltering missteps the religion has taken amongst the people of Nagasaki with the absence of priests on the island. The viewer can feel a deep sense of pity towards the naive islanders, subsumed as they are by the “good news”, almost like members of a cult.
Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), the mentor they are searching for, takes on a kind of mythic quality as the film continues – a sort of like the Kurtz figure in Apocalypse Now. There is an almost inevitability to his return which provides a momentum to the story telling. Which is useful because, as mentioned before, not a great deal happens. However the pacing of the movie is never given second place to mood. Yes, the film is very beautifully shot, with tremendous performances throughout and a sure-handed cinematographic artistry which fills the screen with stunning vistas and a 17th Century Japan so authentically recreated as to feel at all times like a real, tangible place. But this is almost incidental – the intensity and effectiveness of the movie is created by the success it achieves getting under the viewer’s skin. Not much happens, but in a curiously compelling way.
The film is not without moments of wonder, and humour too. Yôsuke Kubozuka provides a great warmth to the piece as Kichijiro – a guide who is desperate for repentance without wanting to cease the things he has to repent. There is an aching sadness to his performance too, which deftly provides the humour with a deeper meaning. Issei Ogata as the inquisitor also provides a hard and yet comic foil to Father Rodrigues in the scenes debating faith.
Scorsese knows his onions and uses a lightness of touch when required but also on occasion bludgeons the viewer with horror. Sometimes that horror is simply tragic, sometimes bloody.
A curious omission from the film is that while throughout the movie the priests and Christian characters are horrified and disgusted by the behaviour and cruelty of the Buddhist inquisitor, not a single mention or even comment is made about the Spanish Inquisition which, at least in some areas, was still ongoing during the period the film covers. The absolute hypocrisy of this fact is difficult to bear in some cases. Although the main scourge of the Inquisition was conducted in Spain many years before and these characters are Portuguese the fear it engendered in those doubting their faith was a very real and present thing. In fact the lack of mention of the Inquisition, for context at the very least, is an absence which makes it seem like one religion is better than the other. Which is a curious thing to suggest in a modern movie – even if you are premiering it in Vatican City.
Silence is out on the 1st January 2017, and is an artfully made, great film about faith. You may buy into the faith, or think it ridiculous, but it will make you think. How much it will affect and move you however will probably have more to your attitude towards religion before entering the cinema.