“I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?” Such is the ultimate line in the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence. Scorsese has spent about twenty-five years trying to make Silence since reading Shusaku Endo’s novel, and it’s clear why with some knowledge about Scorsese and his career. Martin Scorsese has professed in interviews that prior to becoming a filmmaker he contemplated a career in the priesthood, and even after going to film school internalized the messages of Christ and his teachings. Since then Scorsese has professed to having crises of faith as a lapsed Catholic, and it emanates through each film that he does. Each in their own way deals with the idea of faith in the face of obstacles, or people who ponder if their bad deeds will ever catch up to them. It’s what connects a film like Taxi Driver in which a Vietnam War veteran hopes that divine intervention will clean the filth off of the streets of New York with a film like Wolf of Wall Street in which a career conman is eventually forced to reap what he sows in the form of imprisonment. It’s a subject that Scorsese has been trying to put on film for decades, and at last he has done so in its clearest form.
On the surface Silence tells the story of a Jesuit priest, Father Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, who along with his companion Father Francisco Garupe, played by Adam Driver, travels to Japan to locate their lost teacher, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson. Once there Rodrigues and Garupe find a village of Japanese Christians who are forced to practice in secret, with no one to confess their sins to and a man who can only perform baptisms. They are lead there by Kichijiro, played by Yosuke Kubozuka, a man who apostatized, or abandoned the faith, in public and asks for the Fathers’ forgiveness. They initially spend their days in hiding, but when their works become known they are left helpless as members of the village are crucified and left to die like martyrs on the Cross while they are forced to watch from afar. There is danger all around them and there is a price for their heads, 300 silver coins, ten times what was offered to Judas to betray Jesus. From there Rodrigues and Garupe are faced with internal torment, forced to ask themselves if their glory or martyrdom is worth the suffering of numerous Japanese, if it is simply a sort of vanity, or if there is even someone to answer all of their prayers.
The trials that the Fathers are subject to are increasingly elaborate, seeing crucifixions are just the start. But the film itself provides no such trials to the audience, it is constantly engaging, knowing exactly just how to navigate its world in order to keep the ideas fresh and the questions constant. Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira doesn’t appear until the third act of the film, but he provides perhaps the most difficult test of the film and the most direct questions of faith. Neeson does a great job with little screen time, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but he knows what he is doing. Look at his eyes later in the film when he and Garfield examine Christian objects, what the slightest look indicates. Or even soon after he’s reintroduced when he knows that he can no longer be the teacher of faith that he once was to the young Jesuits. Garfield does perhaps the best work of his career as Rodrigues. If one ever needs an example of the actor’s range they need only compare his relatively unspoken, complex work here with his more vocal, outgoing performance in The Social Network. Driver doesn’t have as much time on screen as Garfield but does excellent work with what he has. There is plenty to be said for a grueling shoot like Silence, that doesn’t ask that its actors be willing to suffer for their art externally as with The Revenant, but to look within themselves. Driver, Garfield, and Neeson all did and the results speak volumes.
Also great are all of the Japanese actors, three in particular: Kubozuka as Kichijiro, Tadanobu Asano, the Interpreter later in the film, and most delightful of all is Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige, aka The Inquisitor. As The Inquisitor, Ogata is able to capture an engaging and excellent performance that provides some much-needed comic relief in the second half of the film. He taunts Rodrigues with the idea that Japan is a “swamp” in his words, meaning that nothing new can thrive there, especially Christianity. His character makes one wonder if the work of the missionaries is a worthy cause, or just a stand-in for the European colonialism to come. But the biggest stars here are clear even from the trailer: Martin Scorsese and the Director of Photography, Rodrigo Prieto, who does the best work of his career. Scorsese already has a legendary body of work that includes the films mentioned above, as well as The Departed, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. It is said that Scorsese makes a masterpiece once every decade and Silence could very well prove to be that film for the 2010’s. Prieto’s cinematography is both absolutely gorgeous and perfect for the film they create. At times it contrasts the minor and somewhat minuscule world of Father Rodrigues and Garupe with the vast natural world of Japan, and at times it firmly locks onto Rodrigues’ point of view and provides a look into his internal search for meaning in all of the suffering around him. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s veteran editor, does solid work as always, providing meaningful cuts and helping the film move along at a vigorous pace.
What gripes I have with the film are few and far between, the first act of the film is the least engaging, but I use relative terms because the rest of the film sets a high standard. However, I continue to contemplate the film and am afraid that as someone who isn’t entirely religious that there might be some small things that were lost on me, but don’t let that turn you off from seeing it. The film doesn’t have to do primarily with religious faith and certainly not with Catholicism or Christianity specifically. Although the setting is very specific, the film is best seen as an allegory; as much about Christianity in 17th century Japan as the Allegory of the Cave is about people living in Plato’s time. The film’s images stick in the mind and it’s something that I feel I will have to think about, but that while it did affect me emotionally in the theater, maybe not as much as I or the film would have liked to. For that reason I can’t rate it exactly perfect, but as you’ll notice I’ve decided to take up a different rating system: the new system goes from A+ to F, which offers more flexibility than a star rating system. The film offers a riveting examination of faith, and like faith offers rich rewards for those willing to seek it out.