During the 1600s in the St Paul’s College of Macau, Father Rodriguezs (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are informed that their mentor Father Ferreira’s (Liam Neeson) mission in Japan ended in failure. Worse still, there are allegations that Father Ferreira renounced the faith and is believed to be dead. Unable to believe their mentor would commit such heresy or apostasy, Rodrigues and Garupe set out to find Ferreira. With the aid of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the Fathers are smuggled into Japan and rapidly learn that the few Japanese Christians hide their faith, and live in constant fear. The Japanese government aims to eradicate Christianity from the country and they hunt meticulously for believes of the foreign faith. As death looms ever closer to Rodrigues and Garupe, they struggle to find any information about their mentor Father Ferreira.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, Silence is an interesting film that starts very strong but unfortunately falters halfway through. There is palpable tension in the first hour of the film where we see the Fathers enter Japan. They are taken into a remote village where its inhabitants are not only Christians, but also have been praying for official members of the church to arrive. Rejoiced and surprised, the Fathers begin to see a devotion to the faith warms their hearts and gives them hope for their mission in this country. However, their bliss dissolves as the Shogun’s men arrive and begin to test the villager’s faith. What follows is a collection of sequences where the faithful are tortured and the grim reality of Japan descends upon the two Fathers.
This whole first half of Silence is amazing. On the one side, you have the visuals with a cinematography that is as brilliant as it indicative of the overarching themes of the film. The landscape makes you feel imprisoned and with an overwhelming sense of danger to the point where even the slight shifts in camera angles, or puffs of smoke feel threatening. There’s an ominous quality to the proceedings, an air of dread that permeates every scene. Then you have the performances from the main actors as well as the Japanese villagers. These individuals effortlessly convey what it is to live in secrecy and the threat of death for believing in something that isn’t the norm. Their struggle is unnerving and the inevitable discovery of their betrayal to Japanese law creates some genuinely heart-breaking moments. Their suffering is shown in an unadulterated fashion that affects you deeply, and leaves a lasting impression. Unfortunately, when the film begins to focus exclusively on Father Rodrigues things begin to falter and we’re left with a latter half that challenges to remain awake.
It must be stated that even though Silence focuses from the beginning on Father Rodrigues, at the halfway mark he becomes the sole focus and in turn the film begins to take a more predictable route. A bit of spoilers but not really, because if you’ve seen the trailer you’re aware that Andrew Garfield’ Father Rodrigues is captured. It’s an inevitability and while he isn’t killed, he is subjected to all manners of psychological torture that really put a damper on the film. Granted, it is refreshing to see that there isn’t any physical torture but the psychological mind games are no particularly compelling. This isn’t the result of Garfield’s performance, but more to do with his character.
Father Rodrigues is an avid believer, a true Christian and while he does have certain doubts there is something off-putting, at least for me, about being forced to root for him. Silence wants you to empathize with Rodrigues, which gets progressively difficult as the film moves along. The difficulty stems from the simple fact that Rodrigues’ pride utterly blinds him from both understanding and accepting the reality before his eyes. It is frustrating to see such a naive character, especially when his naivety leads him to commit idiotic acts and say idiotic things. His struggle with the faith loses impact because the root of the struggle is a character that doesn’t feel multi-dimensional. It is so easily to see through Father Rodrigues that much of the second half of the film feels like a dull unending waiting game. I lost patience to the point where I ended up rooting for Father Rodrigues to just die. I found myself not only paying more attention to the Japanese cast, which is stellar, but also analyzing the film’s central conflict in order to inject some needed punch to the proceedings.
So let’s discuss this central conflict, because while I can’t say I enjoyed Silence I will say that the ideas it explores are fascinating. As the title suggests, one of the ever-present issues with Christianity is the God’s eternal silence. You pray, you call out, you devote yourself to an ideal and even then God’s voice eludes you. But why is that? Is it because we expect a certain type of communication that isn’t realistic? Like, direct answers instead of the ambiguous or cryptic ones that supposedly get. Why is it that when we suffer, God does not come to our aid? Why does God remain silent? Is it because God doesn’t exist? Or is God’s silence in itself a form of communication? Faith is such a complex concept, because it is within our nature to reject what cannot be seen or touched. Giving yourself to an ethereal ideal is difficult and creates a lot friction within the self. Silence doesn’t settle on one answer over the other, but instead opens up discussion by presenting multiple possibilities to these questions.
At the end of the day, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is underwhelming. For a film that should’ve been a masterpiece, Silence is incapable of maintaining the momentum that made the first half into such a great and intense experience. Don’t get me wrong, the performances from the entire cast are effective and some performances from the Japanese actors are straight-up genius. Issey Ogata who plays the Inquisitor and Tadanobu Asano who plays the Interpreter are both incredible. Moreover, these two represent the Japanese perspective on the meaning of Christianity and how such a belief cannot take root within Japanese culture. I admire the way in which their thoughts are presented, because it is always done in deliberate and intellectual manner. There’s a thoughtfulness in their responses and their animosity towards Christianity is not baseless. Silence may falter in the latter half with its sole focus on a character who get progressively duller and hollow, but the film remain stead-strong in its exploration of different beliefs and the anguish of faith.