What is faith? Why does God allow terrible things to happen in the world? What does His silence mean in the face of these atrocities? These are the types of weighty questions pondered in Martin Scorsese's 2016 masterpiece Silence. Adapted from Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel of the same name, which Scorsese first optioned for adaptation in 1993 and has been working on since, Silence is possibly the most Scorsese-y movie that Scorsese has ever made.
Though most famous in the public consciousness for his mob movies like Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed, Scorsese has always been the most Catholic of filmmakers, obsessing over guilt, martyrdom, absolution, and the weight of those things on the souls of his characters. Most potently until now was in Raging Bull, with Jake LaMotta's struggles of anger, jealousy, and purification through the pain and self inflicted (and self destructive) punishment of boxing, but hoping and trying for redemption later in life. But even Scorsese's gangsters are mired in these obsessions. His 1973 breakthrough, Mean Streets, opens with his hoodlum hero saying "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." And that's what Silence tackles as well, the real world applications of the tenants of the Christian faith, often in the face of heavy opposition. It's easy to have faith when you've never tested it. But what about when it's tested over and over and over again? What if people live or die based on how you proclaim your faith? What then? What about His silence then?
The movie opens in the mid-17th century Japanese countryside, as Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) watches while a group of Japanese converted Christians are tortured in unimaginable ways while he is told to apostatize, publicly reject his faith and renounce Christianity by stepping on a plate carrying the image of Jesus. See, the thing about mid-17th century Japan is that Christianity was illegal. Japan was in a time of strict isolationism and wanted no part of this European religion that wasn't their own (the modern parallels of the fear of Islam and America's increasing desire for isolationism in the Trump era is ripe for exploring, but that's not what Scorsese has any interest in, this is not a metaphorical movie). That's why Ferreira was witnessing the torture of Christians. That was the punishment dealt out by the Inquisitor, the man in charge of making sure law and order is carried out.
We cut to two young Portuguese priests, Father Garrupe (Adam Driver) and Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), being told that father Ferreira has renounced the faith and is lost to them. Both young priests say that's not possible, as Ferreira was the priest that taught them and whose faith is stronger than anyone's. They resolve to go to Japan and find Father Ferreira, while also spreading the faith in the country. It is into this inhospitable land that Rodrigues and Garrupe arrive, led by a guide they picked up in Macau, a Japanese man named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), who insists that he's not a Christian, when he's introduced as one to the priests. He takes them to a small village where they eventually learn that Kichijiro was a persecuted Christian who was made to watch as his family was slaughtered in front of him, even after he apostatized. He considered himself a lost soul after that, but asks the fathers for forgiveness and becomes a key figure in their journey.
Most of the first half of the movie is taken up with this story of Rodrigues and Garrupe landing in the small village and finding an underground group of Christians, forced to practice in almost complete silence, and in the dead of night so as not to be discovered by the authorities. The villagers are ecstatic to find priests, which grants them the ability to give confession and baptize their babies. In one of the only scenes of levity in the movie, Garrupe has to have a woman start her confession over and over because she's speaking too fast in Japanese and his grasp of the language can't keep up yet. He eventually concedes and Rodrigues narrates that sometimes they forgave sins during confession even though they weren't sure what they were forgiving. But their mission is to find Father Ferreira and these villagers don't know him. So the priests split up, with Garrupe going one way, as we follow Rodrigues the other way.
Rodrigues is soon captured by the authorities, betrayed by Kichijiro, who later asks for forgiveness and claims he didn't accept the money given to him for selling out the priest. Rodrigues is taken to the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata). While imprisoned by the Inquisitor, Rodrigues continues to preach to the fellow converts imprisoned, as well as have philosophical conversations with the Inquisitor and the translator (Tadanobu Asano) on the nature of religion, martyrdom, Japan, and more. It's to Scorsese's great credit that he allows the Japanese to eloquently defend their side of the story as much as Rodrigues gets to talk about his own.
Although he presents a front to his captors of strong impenetrable faith, we hear Rodrigues, through narration, asking himself where is God. He asks why these things must happen. Why must His followers put themselves on the same path of suffering that Jesus went through? Jesus was both God and man, he went through his trials so that men like Rodrigues need not. Why does the church even persist in a land as inhospitable as Japan is at this moment in time? The Inquisitor says that Japan is a swamp and the tree of Christianity will not grow there. Why are the priests here? For what purpose? Rodrigues wonders if God hears his prayers, or if he's simply praying into silence.
Although none of the three white actors do anything resembling a Portuguese accent, they were all perfectly suited for their roles. Andrew Garfield has small, delicate, even angelic features, but subtly expressive. We see his doubt even before we hear his narration telling us of it. Adam Driver, much as he does with his excellent work as Kylo Ren in Star Wars, shows us the face of never changing fanaticism. When Father Garrupe's followers are bound in straw and thrown into the ocean, rather than giving in to the pressure to apostatize, he doesn't hesitate to swim after them, giving everything he's got to save the lives of others. Liam Neeson, when we see him again, has all the downcast eyes of a completely broken man. He says all the words the Inquisitor wants to hear, but you can feel that his soul isn't in them. This huge man has become an obedient dog, even as you hope the internal soul doesn't follow his external behavior.
The Japanese actors as well are uniformly brilliant. Ogata, as the Inquisitor, brings a campiness and unpredictability with his high pitched voice and annoyed demeanor. Instead of making him seem fey and weak, it gives him the menacing quality that Vincent Price would bring to his roles. Humor, but dangerousness as well, and power. Asano, as the Interpreter, brings Rodrigues seeds of doubt and although he often outwardly appears to be on the side of our protagonist, you can feel his ulterior motives without having to spell them out. You don't trust him. The other most impressive of the Asian cast (and most of the movie is Asian) is Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi, a man in the first village the priests visit. His internal integrity radiates, and he has one of the most powerful arcs in the movie, which I won't spoil for you.
Yōsuke Kubozuka, as the wretch of Kichijiro, is astounding in a performance that reminded me of Toshiro Mifune's work in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. For a long time I wasn't sure what to make of Kichijiro. He betrays Father Rodrigues multiple times, always coming back to ask forgiveness for being so weak. Ask forgiveness for being unworthy. Rodrigues isn't sure what to make of him either, but he always forgives him, even if it's hesitantly. It wasn't until near the end of the movie that I realized that Kichijiro is us. Always straying, always weak, but stronger than we know. Always asking forgiveness for our sins. Kichijiro is our mirror, even if he's one we don't particularly like looking into.
Although he has tackled some of these things before in his work, most obviously in 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997's Kundun, Scorsese really gets to dive in and thoroughly explore these Catholic themes this time. What must God think if you publicly denounce Him, but in your heart still hold your faith true? Are you damned? Did the Inquisitor win if he gets you to apostatize? The interpreter keeps telling Rodrigues to just do it, it's a meaningless gesture that will save lives. But does he represent the voice of God or of Satan? At one point Rodrigues hears what he believes to be the voice of Christ. Is it? Or is it his own conscience telling him what he wants to hear? Is it better to hold onto your faith even if it means death, or to denounce but still believe in your heart? God sees your heart, but does that make the denouncement okay?
I've seen Silence described as a perfect movie for the faithful, because it tackles these questions of faith and the dichotomy between what we say and do and what's in our hearts. But I think that's narrow minded. I'm an atheist and I found this movie fascinating and endlessly thought provoking. It's exploring human nature, really. It need not apply to only those who follow Christianity, it has so much to offer all of us. It's long, 2 hours and 40 minutes, but honestly I think it earns its length. It's not easy to watch, but it's not The Passion of The Christ, an endurance test of watching torture, testing your gag reflex but not your mind. Silence has the brain and soul of true belief, even if that includes doubt, because it must include doubt. If you haven't doubted, you've not really believed. Silence won't stay a Hidden Gem. It's too powerful, too challenging, and too brilliant. But I hope I brought some extra light onto this newest masterpiece by our greatest living filmmaker.