It’s not the most obvious choice to follow up a film like Wolf of Wall Street with an intellectual mediation of the relationships between faith and pride, suffering and goodness, and even God and cinema itself, but that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese has done with Silence. A decades-in-the-making passion project for the legendary director and conflicted Catholic, Silence is a deeply spiritual piece with none of Scorsese’s usual flourishes. While it may occasionally border on too dry for some tastes, there’s no doubt that it’s a genuinely important work from a true auteur, even if its ambitions can come into conflict with its capacity to deliver consistent emotional power.
Adapting Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence follows two Portuguese missionaries, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), and their search through 1630s Japan for their old mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Rumour has it that Ferreira has lost the faith due to the barbaric punishments handed out to Christians as the Japanese state clamps down on this outsider creed, and Rodrigues and Garrpe see it as their duty to either prove such slander wrong or save Ferreira’s lost soul. Beneath a scourge of religious persecution, the two young priests find beauty and strength in the hardship of their mission, but the suffering of the locals eventually tests their faith to a near-breaking point.
Despite Driver and Neeson getting their names on the posters, their characters are absent for the majority of the story, with Neeson only in three scenes. Instead, Issei Ogata and Tadanobu Asano deserve top billing alongside Garfield as the Buddhist inquisitor and his interpreter, respectively. After Rodrigues and Garrpe are separated while fleeing the inquisitor’s men, we follow Rodrigues exclusively as he struggles to come to terms with the brutality of life for Japanese Christian peasants. Less haughtily pious than his former companion, Rodrigues’ crisis of faith, exacerbated by the ceaseless attempts of the inquisitor to get him to publicly denounce God, open Silence’s first main question of whether an outwardly unshakeable devotion is true faith or nothing more than selfish pride.
For every moment that Rodrigues holds out, horrific attacks are meted out not against him, but against the Japanese converts that look to him for guidance. It’s a particularly vicious torture tactic and makes for some hugely powerful scenes. Importantly, these moments never feel gratuitous despite their raw impact, with the goriest moments over in a flash and the longer-lasting suffering inviting far more empathy for the victims than most films manage.
To get the most out of Silence you’re going to have to either be religious yourself or accept that you’re going into a film where theological debate is rife and characters sincerely receive visitations from Jesus. A lot is done to make sure that Garfield looks as much as possible like traditional depictions of the son of God, and a scene in which a puddle warps his reflection to the point of transforming him into the man himself will surely prove divisive, but is pulled off with understated style.
To sell all of this requires a cast of plentiful skill and, true to form, Scorsese has assembled a cracking ensemble. Garfield continues his recent fantastic form in the lead, even if he and Driver struggle very slightly with their accents, and the Japanese stars turn in layered, human performances, laced with a tiny but near-venomous sense of arch campiness. Neeson, in a role once held for Daniel Day-Lewis, is jaw-droppingly good, bringing years of strife to his brief screen time as well as a state of graceful self-acceptance the likes of which can only be conveyed by the most skilled performers.
In taking on this very introspective story, Scorsese and writing partner Jay Cocks have been forced to keep things slow. For the most part this works, and actually manages to make Silence feel a lot like old Japanese epics beyond its mere setting. The themes explored here need time to breathe, especially a core idea that, within a cinematic world, an audience can take the place of a silent god. We hear Rodrigues’ prayers but, like the Almighty who seems to be ignoring him, we can make no reply, only passively listen and watch as his world crumbles.
A leisurely pace also allows Scorsese and DOP Rodrigo Pieto to compose absurdly gorgeous shots. Every frame has its own painting-esque majesty, and scenes at night are beautiful to the point of surrealism. Using Japan’s nature to its full visual extent, outside music is notably absent too, bringing subtle environmental sounds to the fore instead. Towards the very end, the pacing is thrown off somewhat by an epilogue that feels far too in debt to the film’s origins as a novel, something that hasn’t been remotely limiting beforehand. Yet, this stumble gives you some additional time to reflect – before the credits actually roll – on a film that has its flaws, but certainly enriches the 2016 movie slate, a thesis on cinema from a man who could not be more qualified to construct it.