The great Martin Scorsese has never been one to shy away from difficult or controversial subjects. In this regard, most would probably think of his 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which tackled the story of Jesus and his commitment to his cause. The film dealt with issues of faith and the temptation to lay that faith down for an easier life, which are topics that the director has chosen to explore once again in his latest project entitled “Silence,” based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Though not as controversial as his last religious film, the themes are no less difficult to deal with in a slightly different context, but with a master of cinema at the helm, you can be sure that not only will they be dealt with in the most respectful of manners, but also that the resulting film will be something truly special.
In the seventeenth century, two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), travel to Japan with their guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), in order to find their former teacher, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have renounced his faith. At this time in Japan’s history, Christians are being hunted down and persecuted, making the priests’ trip their extremely dangerous, but while waiting on word of Ferriera, they help the believers they find by holding mass, performing baptisms, and hearing confessions, all in complete secrecy. Their days continue on like this for some time, that is, until a certain event leads to the capture of Rodrigues. Brought before Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), Rodrigues is faced directly with the difficult questions of how strong his faith truly is and whether it will be able to withstand his coming trials.
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is a somewhat deceptive film at first. On the surface, it presents itself as a kind of mystery in that these young priests want to discover what happened to their mentor, while being in complete disbelief of the second-hand information that says that he apostatized. Throughout the first half of the film, we witness the dangers that these two young men are willing to face in order to complete their mission, all the while helping to propagate Christianity in a country that persecutes those who would practice it.
This is a decently intriguing story, but as the minutes roll on, you begin to wonder if there’s going to be anything more to the film other than these two men secretly helping their fellow believers and trying to uncover the truth behind Ferreira. I must admit, I had my doubts, feeling that the film was proceeding rather slowly and not delving into the material in any real significant way, but having great faith in Scorsese, I continued on in the hopes that there was a reason he had spent around 25 years trying to get this project made.
It’s in the second half where this persistence finally pays off, for this is where the film’s true story begins to unfold. We have seen throughout the film that there is a modicum of doubt in Rodrigues, doubt in his prayers and doubt that Ferreira’s apostasy is the lie he hopes it is, but it is here where all of his deepest beliefs are put to the ultimate test, turning the film into a powerful, thought-provoking examination of keeping one’s faith and where one draws the line in staying true to their beliefs under the most trying circumstances.
Whereas the first half of the film had played more on a superficial narrative level, the second half takes the material and begins to examine it in detail. There are brilliantly-conceived scenes presented in this latter half, mainly between Rodrigues and his mentor, that strike right to the heart of the matter, presenting arguments on both sides for why certain acts should be done. All the while, Inquisitor Inoue continues his mission of trying to break this young man’s faith, not through torture or threats against his life (after all, martyrdom could present a backlash against everything he’s working toward), but through other means that could force Rodrigues to make a choice that goes against everything he believes in.
It’s the kind of film that, once it’s over, you’ll find yourself thinking about it for quite some time. It’s a lot to take in on one viewing, not particularly from a narrative point of view, but more so from a thematic perspective. Were the right choices made by Ferreira and Rodriguez in light of the circumstances? Perhaps this is something that only they can answer, for who knows how any of us would react to what they are put through throughout Inoue’s quest to stomp out Christianity from Japan.
As an examination of faith and keeping true to one’s beliefs, “Silence” is a marvelous achievement, exploring these subjects in an even more compelling way than Scorsese had in “The Last Temptation of Christ” nearly 20 years ago. One can’t help but admire not only the passion that he has put into this project, but also the magnificent production of the entire endeavor. The direction, screenplay (by Jay Cocks and Scorsese), editing, cinematography, production design, costumes, and, perhaps most especially, the ensemble are all magnificent. It’s by no means an easy film to process, but if you are willing to put in the effort, you will be richly rewarded with one of the very best and most deeply felt films of the year. 3.5/4 stars.