Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated screen adaptation of the novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō takes complicated subject matter and treats it with the respect that such a complex tale deserves.
The story takes place in 17th-century Japan, but instead of samurai the concern here is religion, specifically Portuguese priests spreading their Gospel, much to the dismay of the powers that be. Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apparently gone rogue, with reports being sent back of him denying his Catholic faith and taking up with the Japanese. Padres Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) go on a sort of rescue mission.
While Christianity took hold in Japan at one point in time–to the tune of over 300,000 believers–by the time the padres hit land, an inquisition has wiped most of them out. The strongholds are found in tiny villages, where devout believers hide their faith while practicing it to the best of their abilities. The appearance of real, live Catholic priests is literally a Godsend, and even when things go south, their faith never waivers.
That’s not necessarily true of the Portuguese protagonists, however. They both remain pious and dedicated through much struggle, but seeing their new parishioners tortured and killed in the name of wiping out their religion takes its toll.
The main tension figures around the question of faith, both how it is shared and garnered, but also what it means to have that faith threatened. While the subtext here is Christianity, this movie is no doubt a Catholic one. The rituals and theology out of Rome inform the actions of persecutor and persecuted alike. When the Christ of one’s faith is constantly presented as bloody and hanging from a cross, believers take that seriously and live out a concordant faith.
The movie itself succeeds and fails on casting. Without exception, the Japanese actors are superb. Issey Ogata as Inoue the head persecutor continually surprises with a combination of quirky mannerisms and quick wit. Yôsuke Kubozuka plays the ever-repenting Kichijiro, a man who goes from guide to betrayer to loyal friend, repeating the cycle often. Every one of the villagers helps create a realism of poverty and piety that buoys the entire cinematic effort.
The European cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Driver’s gaunt fortitude works for this story, and Neeson’s posture as former priest is serviceable. Garfield will create more controversy. He gives an energetic performance, but it would be easy to dismiss his casting as a Hollywood decision, not necessarily the best decision for this particular film.
Despite the similarities in religious subject matter, Silence is very much not Passion of the Christ, despite both films’ depiction of suffering. Scorsese isn’t interested in simple persecution porn; he wants the viewer to feel the urgency and trauma of the situation while imagining oneself faced with a similarly difficult choice. Silence doesn’t sit still long enough for it to be dismissed as just one cliché or another. Instead, it makes real the questions posed throughout: “What do I believe, and what does that belief mean?” No easy answers lie within.