The Sound of Silence
Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Elie Wiesel wrote that, in his astonishing memoir Night. He survived the Holocaust, and he later wrote about how his faith was consumed by flames. Who can blame him? He, and millions like him, cried out to God in the ghettos, the box cars, the gas chambers. They called out for mercy, justice, retribution. Was God listening? Perhaps.
It’s a common theme. Atrocities and disasters take place, and we often wonder. We wonder if God was in Windows on the World on September 11, if he was on the lonely plains of Sand Creek. We wonder if God was in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, if His attention was turned towards Khan Yunis in 1956. We wonder how God could allow these events to happen. Maybe we’re reading the situation incorrectly. Maybe God dwelled in those places and suffered alongside those people.
Martin Scorsese knows a thing or two about faith. He calls himself a lapsed Catholic, but I suspect he’s less lapsed than he thinks he is. His plan was to become a priest, and in a way, he did. His church has images flickering at 24 frames per second, and while it might seem decidedly less holy, he’s no less concerned with matters of sin and redemption. He’s arguably the world’s greatest living director, and his latest film Silence is a punishing look at a clash of religions.
We’re introduced to Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit priest in the 17th-century. He has traveled to Japan as a missionary and has converted many Japanese. Yet, the state religion is Buddhism, and the shogunate won’t tolerate the spread of Christianity. Ferreira is captured, and he witnesses the mass torture of Japanese Christians. The authorities offer him a choice. If he commits apostasy and steps on a fumie, a carved image of Jesus, the torture will stop.
Years later, Portuguese priest Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) receives incredible news. Allegedly, Ferreira has renounced the faith, taken a wife and children, and now lives among the Japanese. His students Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) can’t believe it. They decide to track down their mentor and determine the truth of the matter. This is easier said than done since thousands of Japanese Christians have been tortured, arrested, and slain as an example. The priests are in extreme danger, and their guide Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) is a drunk with questionable spirituality but a strong sense of self-preservation.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are separated, and Rodrigues is quickly captured. The authorities, represented by the elderly samurai Inoue (Issei Ogata), view the spread of Christianity as a cancer spreading across their nation, one that needs to be swiftly cut out. He’s imprisoned and forced to witness the torture of numerous Christians, many of which risked their lives to help him. All the while, he’s plagued with questions. He wonders how much suffering he can withstand before he breaks. He wonders if God wants him to resist, or if he should renounce his faith in order to save lives. He wonders is God is listening or is even there at all.
Let’s take a moment to first talk about what this film isn’t. You’re familiar with the many, many movies where a saintly white person heroically helps a group of adoring non-whites? That’s not happening here. True, many of the secret Christians are overjoyed by the presence of Rodrigues and Garrpe in their tiny villages. But the argument can be and is made that Catholicism is just another form of Western imperialism that arrogantly stomps into Japan, and that the spread of Christianity saves souls at the cost of lives.
Also, Silence is a Christian film, but its examination of the faith is not what many viewers might expect. The Passion of the Christ is all about the intense suffering endured by Jesus on behalf of the sins of mankind, and while Silence has scenes of torture that are just as agonizing as Mel Gibson’s film, it’s a more nuanced view. Here, we see the presence of God in failure and pragmatism. We’re asked to consider the conflict between following a sacred vow and practicality.
As usual, Scorsese’s direction is brilliant, but it’s more restrained than previous films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Frequently, when agony or death occurs, the camera views it at a distance. It’s meant to put us in Rodrigues’ shoes, and show us how he witnesses atrocities but is powerless to stop them. It’s also meant to show us the POV of the Almighty, just a little bit removed from the action. His sound design is also impeccable. There are moments where we’re assaulted by screams of pain, others where there’s nothing but the wind or the sounds of the surf.
Scorsese’s script, co-written by longtime collaborator Jay Cocks, is based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo. The script effectively shares the novel’s spiritual ambiguity. It also goes out of its way to try to understand the official position of the shogunate and their belief in Christianity’s corrupting influence. Best, or possibly worst, of all, we see pious men of the cloth being tested. They worry that they can’t measure up to the test, or that they have missed the point of the test entirely. How can you be sure of your faith if communication only goes one way?
Unsurprisingly, Scorsese’s cast is top-notch. Seeing Liam Neeson, who usually plays up his imposing physicality, portraying a shattered husk of a man was unsettling. Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues is a profoundly decent man who willingly steps into danger to try to save the souls of those dwelling in isolated villages. He does good work, but his best scenes are the ones where he faces off against the canny Inoue. Ogata and Garfield’s scenes are gripping to watch, and we see the verbal joust of two principled and intelligent men making valid points.
Silence isn’t entertainment. It’s not the kind of movie that offers comfortable moral platitudes and sends the audience out with a spring in their step. This is complex and challenging filmmaking that’s designed to unsettle and asks questions that lack easy answers.