Academics are taught to write with a dispassionate yet highly detailed style for their scholarly treatises. That is the approach that Martin Scorsese has taken with SILENCE, his philosophically dense and immaculately rendered film of Shusaku Endo’s book of the same name. The result is a maddening film more to be admired than enjoyed as it wrestles with questions of faith, compassion, and the prison of dogma.
The SILENCE of the title is what Portugues Jesuit, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) experiences when waiting for God to speak to him during his trials in 17th-century Japan. He is there with Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) to search for their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing there and rumored to have turned apostate. The film opens with his last letter, detailing the torture of his fellow priests, and his unfathomable anguish. Against the better judgement of their superior (Ciaran Hinds), and the assistance of a distinctly unpromising pile of rags and guilt, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) to smuggle them into Japan from China, he steals into the country and is overwhelmed by the grateful reception of the beleaguered Christians, comparing the secret masses to the early days of the faith when it was celebrated in catacombs and martyrdom was always at hand.
There he witnesses anguish and steadfastness from the poorest of the poor who remain Christians despite the religion having been outlawed, and disputes points of dogma with Father Garrpe, with the serene Japanese interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) who thinks Christianity works in Europe but not Japan, and with the affable, fly-plagued Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) tasked with breaking him in front of the converts. In each case, the paradigm gulf between each party is revealed in all its insurmountable glory.
Visually, this is a sumptuous, if quietly dour, experience. From the wide expanses of ocean symbolizing the distance literal and metaphorical between Easter and Western culture, to the raw violence visited upon those who refuse to recant. That the violence is as much psychological as physical creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that the modern viewer with differing views on matters of religions can easily parse, while also sympathizing with the purity of Father Rodrigues motives, even as they lead to martyrdom for others willing to endure it.
There is never a question of Rodrigues’ sincerity in his devotion to his faith, and to his flock that are so desperate for his comfort and counsel. It’s that very faith, though, that prevents him seeing how far he has fallen short in his mission. Garfield suffers magnificently, on a par with Peter O’Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. His gentleness of spirit, his shock at not being able to convert the officials who dispute with him, and his anguish when caught up in a formality that will save a life, but destroy his world view. They are palpable and rendered in sharp, visceral relief. His tender heart all but visibly torn in two, in contrast to the incandescent glow of religious fervor that sustains him for the first part of his ordeal.
Scorsese, who showed us Jesus coming down off the cross in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, once again presents the conundrum of religion, and asks us to consider what is or isn’t worth dying for. He also, in this film, asks us to consider what is not worth that sacrifice in the larger scheme of things. The issues raised, encapsulated so precisely in Kichijiro’s decisive betrayal of faith and heartfelt confessions of remorse, run through the film, and by the end, come to an enigmatic, but startlingly modern kind of détente. Intellectually, satisfying, but with action that drags through its running time, pairing Rodrigues sense of increasing desperation with a languid air, almost of insouciance. The word slog comes to mind, despite images that are ethereally haunting.
SILENCE edifies without quite satisfying. Gorgeous as it is, it achieves the not unadmirable feat of demonstrating the evil inherent in clinging to the belief that there is one and only one right path to transcendence, yet is in execution as piously stiff-necked and misguided as Father Rodrigues himself.