Saying the words “passion project” and “Martin Scorsese” should be enough to legitimize “Silence.” It should be automatically transcendent to see a master artist pour his heart and soul into an intensely personal work that has been tossing and turning in his psyche for decades. To boot, this passion project centers on adapting a celebrated historical novel with thunderous Christian themes represented by nearly one-third of the world’s population. Hell, the man got an audience with the Pope and screened “Silence” at the Vatican. You don’t see the Michael Bays of the world scoring a seat at that table.
But all of those lofty intentions will not be automatically transcendent for everyone. Let me say it like this as delicately as I can. The level of your Christian faith, or lack thereof, will formulate your reaction, appreciation, or acceptance of “Silence.” It is an agonizing personal test for an audience, just the same as it is for the characters on screen. This will either be a soul-rattling testament or maddening torture.
Written by Jay Cocks and Scorsese, “Silence” is based on Shusake Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name, previously put to film in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda from Endo’s own adaptation. “Silence” predominantly reads as a letter or personal journal account of 17th century Japan during the Edo period of Kakure Kirishitans, or “hidden Christians.” The film begins at a breaking point for Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) as he is being forced to watch his Japanese followers tortured and killed by military inquisitors for being Christian. Fr. Ferreira can end their suffering by apostatizing, or renouncing, Christ before them.
Ferreira’s alarming final letter of this event reaches Italy and his missionary leader Alessandro Valignano (Ciarin Hinds) years later. The validity of its claims trouble two of Ferreira’s former pupils, Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver). Valignano grants their requests to travel to Japan, in secret and accompanied by a disgraced guide named Kuchijro (Yosuke Kubozuka), and find out the truth and whereabouts of Fr. Ferreira.
The feudal Japan they enter is governed militarily and has been violently eradicating Christianity since its arrival. The oppressed that practice the faith are forced to do so in hiding from inquisitors lead by the sinister and sneering Inoue Masashige (actor/comedian Issey Ogata, in a deliciously evil performance). The arrival of Rodrigues and Garrpe stirs rekindled and new followers brimming with hope while simultaneously increasing the dangers of discovery and continued violence.
Masashige and his chief interpreter (Tadanobu Asano from “Thor”) know full well that killing the priests only leads to glorified martyrdom and the inspiration of more devoted followers. Instead, the inquisitors target the sheep instead of the shepherds, twisting an invisible knife of guilt and doubt on those forced to bear witness to punishment. The Japanese victory comes from defamation and mental dominance.
Slipping in and out of a terrible attempt at a foreign accent (his second such butchering this year after “Hacksaw Ridge”), a miscast Andrew Garfield is the stalwart tortured soul at the center of this ordeal. Rodrigues is a true believer who sees himself walking in the same persecuted footsteps as Christ, largely unwilling to consider or contemplate the Buddhist lecture from the other side of the aisle. “Silence” builds to devastating breaking points and enormous questions of truths.
Three years ago on this website, I called Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” a movie you were supposed to hate. It was purposely excessive to highlight the wrongs of its story and history. It was the loudest and most flamboyant Scorsese movie possible with every one of his signature flourishes (music, profanity, freeze frames, voiceovers, and debauchery) dialed to 12. By contrast and true to its title, “Silence” is the polar opposite.
It is a film that is supposed to be excruciating, unrelenting, and difficult. There is a piercing brilliance to be found in Scorsese’s shift to patient artistry. Scorsese leaves every showy gimmick at home in favor of a static and minimalistic film that focuses on the magnitude of power that lies inside instead of outside. Rodrigo Prieto’s pristine cinematography observes the world at a distance pushing through and over foliage, sunlight, fog, dust, geothermal steam, and the restraining bars of enclosures. “Silence” is built as an aesthetic monument of tone wholly worthy of impressive regard.
The challenge of the film’s lasting prominence remains the audience’s choice of finding and assigning significance to the experience. An argument can be made that “Silence” could be about any religion and the themes underneath would be universal. Yes and no. I believe identification is huge and the difference maker. “Silence” will stand as a crushingly moving and respectful experience for true believers and rightfully so. The ardently devout should step out of this film with new conviction and affirmed strength. However, the other nearly 70% of the world that do not graze on the same apostolic pasture will wish for the exhausting pain to stop and cement their own resolve in a different direction.
LESSON #1: THE HAUNTING CHARACTERISTIC AND INTERPRETATIONS OF SILENCE-- The film and novel’s title has literal and metaphorical meanings. The literal comes in the absence of words. Silence describes the lack of words to describe the unimaginable horrors subjected to innocent people, the inability to speak out, the hiding of faith, and the nonverbal actions pressed upon the characters. The metaphorical silences stem from the unanswered hopes, questions, and prayers to deliver strength, salvation, or answers. You could unearth more lessons for days from just those two interpretations.
LESSON #2: FAITH VERSUS INSANITY-- “Silence” displays harrowing circumstances where I cannot help but be reminded of the well-worn William Harwood quote that reads:
“The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.”
The levels of doubt and guilt wrestled by the historical priests are colossal and played with dichotomy against the laborious and devoted acts of self-sacrifice to a greater belief than themselves. Again, this all depends on what side of the fence you exercise on or surrender to.