Set in the mid-17th century, two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) receive word that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary in Japan, has apostatized his faith in the face of torture by the anti-Christian authorities. The two volunteer to go to Japan, continue Ferreira’s mission and if possible, find and retrieve him.
The direction here is masterful. Scorsese proves that unlike some of his contemporaries, he hasn't lost his ability to make great artistically satisfying, interesting films. The breathtaking cinematography basks in the environment, the landscapes and civilization of Edo period Japan. Scorsese certainly doesn’t back away from the brutality of the story. While it’s not nearly as violent as the trailer might indicate, it shows in detail how easy it was to make missionaries recant their faith. As a form of mockery, these authorities crucify Christians in the warpath of heavy waves. We also see scalding water used against Ferreira. What makes these and many other scenes so resonating is Scorsese’s unconventional sound design. Or perhaps the absence of it, because there are a number of points in this movie where all but the natural sound effects are muted and the visuals alone relied upon. This technique gives the film a curious absence of score but a much more cognisant tone as you feel the realism of every beat and action. The costuming is superb, the details of the era, the epic nature of the film (it has a runtime of close to three hours). In fact based on these factors, the setting -both place and time, and characterization, it’s clear one of Scorsese’s influences on this film was Akira Kurosawa. In fact there are a couple shots I’m sure are replicated directly from Rashomon.
And just when you thought 2016 already gave us Andrew Garfield’s best yet performance in Hacksaw Ridge, here he delivers an arguably better one as Rodrigues. He flawlessly articulates his desperation to keep his faith in light of all that’s happening. The supporting cast is filled with complex characters too. Adam Driver is believably unsure as Garupe, Yōsuke Kubozuka is an enigma as the apostatized Kichijiro who feels like an allusion to a specific Biblical figure, and Issey Ogata as the governor Inoue Masahige is an unlikeable but challenging antagonist. Liam Neeson though not in the film a lot, also gives a particularly strong performance. Giving additionally decent performances are Yoshi Oida, Tadanobu Asano, and Ciaran Hinds.
If the plot sounds familiar, you’ve likely read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or seen its Vietnam movie equivalent Apocalypse Now. But the story isn’t as straightforward as that and in fact the major journey undertaken by the protagonist is not the one of finding his mentor.
Rodrigues’ journey is a spiritual one of how far his faith can be tested, and the way the movie handles this is wonderful. It doesn’t pick a side; even though the Christians are the ones being persecuted and martyred, it’s contrasted with scenes of intelligent debate and introspection. In one great scene Rodrigues and Inoue argue Christianity over Buddhism and why each believes the western religion should or shouldn’t be practised in Japan. There’s interesting allegorical discussion and even a point where the peacefulness of Buddhism is contrasted against Christianity’s even-then violent history. The movie also showcases and even subtly criticizes iconography in the Catholic Church through the use of the image of Christ or the Virgin Mary that people have to step on to prove they’re not Christians. The fact that some are willing to die rather than do this makes for an interesting commentary, and especially makes Kichijiro who previously had done this but retained his beliefs, a more fascinating character. Silence asks whether faith is worth death and more importantly what the meaning of faith is, how far one will go or be pushed for it. Rodrigues is forced into doubt throughout this movie; forced to question why Jesuits are risking their lives to spread the church, and most significantly whether what he’s been taught to do is necessarily what’s right. Best of all, it’s a film open to interpretation. For example, the breakdown in this movie of religious credence combined with the aforementioned iconography, you could possibly interpret as an argument for the Protestant Reformation (which was in full vigour by this point).
This film does have some issues in pacing, as well as a final shot that should probably have been left ambiguous. But the performances are terrific, it’s a gut-punch emotionally, and on a technical level this is one of Scorsese’s best films! Where Silence shines most however is in its deep and challenging themes that the story supports deftly, which leave even non-believers contemplating their powerful worth.