Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” shares its name with a great Ingmar Bergman film (from his unofficial “Silence of God” trilogy), but is based upon a novel by Shusaku Endo that he’s been trying to adapt for a quarter of a century. The film is about Jesuit priests who travel to 17th Century Japan to spread Christianity, but find a country unwilling to accept what they offer. The setting made me think of Akira Kurosawa (whom directed Scorsese in his 1990 film, “Dreams”), but in the end, the only comparisons that matter are to Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun.” As with Bergman, Scorsese has his own trilogy of faith, which concludes with “Silence,” but Marty’s is more directly about faith and religion than Bergman’s, which makes sense given the undercurrents of his Catholic upbringing that permeate through his films. No filmmaker is more riveting when he deals with religion and matters of faith- the first two films reward multiple viewings. Would “Silence” promise the same on its first?
The obvious narrative in “Silence” is about the persecution of Christians in non-Christian lands as they try to spread the Word of God, but Scorsese and his co-screenwriter, Jay Cocks (who also worked on “Last Temptation”), have deeper ideas. One critic I greatly admire likens “Silence” to Hearts of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novel, and it’s a fitting comparison. We begin in Portugal, where Father Valignano (Ciaran Hines) is reading a letter from Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit who went to Japan to convert people there to Christianity, but instead found brutal persecution of the faithful by the government. This letter was seven years ago, and a Dutch trader has smuggled it out, along with news that Ferreira has publicly renounced God. The young priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) find it hard to believe; they are about to make their mission out to Japan the same as Ferreira, but now, their mission has changed. Valignano tries to convince them that they can no longer go to Japan, but the priests, both mentored by Ferreira, feel a strong need to go anyway. They find their mission more urgent, not only to preach to the faithful and bring God to Japan, but also to find Ferreira. They go at their own peril, certain in their faith and what they can bring to Japan. Certainty is a dangerous thing, however, especially in a land hostile to what you are so certain about.
Although there are certainly surface differences between “Silence” and its predecessors in Scoresese’s trilogy, thematically, common links emerge. All three films look at a spiritual leader’s responsibility to those they hope to lead, and how they must grow into the role based on the struggles of the time they live in. Whether it is 1st Century Judea under Roman times or 20th Century Tibet as the Chinese make their move to ingratiate the country or 17th Century Japan under a wave of religious persecution, the struggle is fundamentally the same for Rodrigues, who becomes the central figure in the film, as it was for Jesus and the 14th Dalai Lama. In a way, though, he has further to go than those two figureheads of their respective faiths. Neither Jesus in “Last Temptation” nor the Dalai Lama in “Kundun” are as certain in their faith as Rodrigues is when we first meet them, and like I said, that is a dangerous thing. Throughout the film, Rodrigues, like Ferreira in the visualization of his letter that begins the film, is witness to brutality that shakes him to his core. His faith is tested, and in his own voice, his prayers seem to go out into a void. Is God witnessing what is being done to His people? And why is He allowing it to happen? One salvation for the faithful in the face of a brutal Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is Apostasy, a public renouncing of the Christian God by defacing a religious symbol. An Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) who works with the Inquisitor is very blase about the act…for Rodrigues, though, it has a great deal of meaning, as it would for any Christian. The longer Rodrigues suffers at the hand of the Inquisitor, though, and sees the suffering of those who have taken Jesus into their heart, he finds himself advising for the act, if only to save those he has sworn to bring the faith to. When Rodrigues is finally confronted with Ferreira near the end, he is presented with a man he does not recognize, but also one who has made peace with how to live in this country that rejects the beliefs he entered it with. A far less obvious theme throughout the trilogy is how best to play the hand God deals you. Jesus rejected his in his “Last Temptation,” but came to understand it in the end. The Dalai Lama sees that the best way, the only way, to be an effective leader for his people is exile. For Ferreira and Rodrigues, Christianity cannot take root in the Japanese swamp, but maybe it’s less because of the message and more in the way the messenger delivers it? Scorsese and Neeson leave hints in our first time seeing him since the start that maybe Ferreira, even while publicly renouncing his faith, might have found the peace with it he was promising those he came to minister. God works in mysterious ways, in ways we don’t always understand until we are confronted with a choice. Rodrigues’s choice is coming- as he was before coming to Japan, can Ferreira be an example to the young priest?
This is an epic film, both in how Scorsese, who has wanted to make the film for a quarter of a century, brings it to life, with the aide of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (whose images here are as beautiful and indelible as Ballhaus’s in “Last Temptation” and Deakins’s in “Kundun”), Dante Ferretti’s production design and costume design, Thelma Schoonmaker’s deliberate editorial eye and the subtle, effective score by Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge, and in the ideas he brings to the table. More than any filmmaker has ever done, Scorsese dramatizes the idea of Christian forgiveness of weakness in a way that is bold and direct. This is the notion of practicing the same type of forgiveness Christ exemplified when He died on the cross for our sins. That idea has never been explored the way it is here in the character of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the fisherman who leads Rodrigues and Garrpe into Japan. Kichijiro apostatized himself 18 years ago while his family did not, and was put to death. He admits his own weakness, and looks prepared to betray the padres at any moment, and often, he does. And yet, he continues to seek out forgiveness by confessing to Rodrigues. It is the ultimate test for Rodrigues- whether he can forgive this “wretch” the way Jesus would, and it provides some of the key moments along Rodrigues’s spiritual journey in the film. The sincerity with which Kubozuka plays the role is comparable to Garfield’s as Rodrigues, and their interactions get to the heart of the film, and the faith Rodrigues practices. I’m reminded of Harvey Keitel’s Judas in “Last Temptation,” and find myself thinking of Kichijiro as the stand-in for Scorsese in this film, like Judas appeared to be in that film (at least, that is how Roger Ebert saw it in his Great Movies review of “Last Temptation,” and it’s hard to argue with his logic).
I look forward to seeing this film again, and hope I can do so again on the big screen, where Pieto’s images, such as when Rodrigues sees an image of Jesus in his own face while he washes in a stream, or when Rodrigues is helpless to help the faithful during moments of suffering, as when three Christians are put up on crucifixes as the tide comes in, or in moments where he is able to practice his faith by hearing confessions and leading mass, envelope the screen, and the actors (including Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi, one of the ones who are forced to wait for the tide) take us to the depths of despair as questions of faith, and whether it can be maintained in the face of violent times, are reflected on their weather-worn faces. Even if you’ve seen every Scorsese film before it, you’ve never seen one like this, as he, once again, examines the nature of the spirit, and how it can survive if tested.