Martin Scorsese has imbued a sense of struggle linked to the Catholic faith in nearly every film he has made. The most obvious example in his now 50-year career is “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the stunning, controversial epic that concerns itself less with the number one question plaguing the lives of Catholics across the globe - What would Jesus do? - than it does with contemplating Christ’s human nature, answering something more along the lines of: What might have Jesus done? “Silence,” the adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel, is about people searching endlessly for answers to questions like these, which arguably makes for an infinitely more captivating theological meditation. It is a grueling, almost unendurable work, which can be attributed to the agonizing run-time, but what really makes the film so tough to sit through is realizing just how many questions Scorsese seeks to ponder, as well as the amount of time it takes to ponder them (not to mention the great deal of suffering shared between the main characters). With this in mind, one could describe “Silence” as the most engaging slog of a film in recent years.
In 17th century Portugal, news of Father Cristóvão Ferreira’s (Liam Neeson) mission to spread the Christian faith in feudal Japan reaches his pupils, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who learn that their elder has committed apostasy and mysteriously disappeared. Believing this to be a call to their own mission, Rodrigues and Garupe travel to Japan to seek out their mentor and continue his work by teaching Christianity to villagers driven underground by the shogunate, who have outlawed the religion. Efforts to teach Christ’s words soon spell danger for the priests and the villagers, as the shogunate subject them to torture and other malicious punishments in order to break their spirits.
The intricacies that fill every frame and give weight to the dialogue (penned by Scorsese and Jay Cocks) are perhaps more staggering when you consider the fact that Scorsese has been laboring over the conception of this film for 30 years, but even at a mere glance do they hold considerable power. About half the picture is filled with wide shots that dwarf its subjects in lush Japanese landscapes (actually filmed in Taiwan), suggesting that if God is indeed watching his followers, He watches them from quite a distance. Depending on your point of view, or however devout you may be, this can be either comforting or upsetting; is it good that God watches over the Jesuits at all, or troubling that He watches without intervening to save Rodrigues and Garupe from the painful ordeal that stems as a result of spreading their faith in a place where it struggles to flourish.
Most of “Silence” exists in the realm of absolute stillness, leaving it to Scorsese’s trusted editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, to find the rhythm of the film. One might sense a lack or rhythm entirely, since the 160-minute run-time feels like over 180, but make no mistake; there is a grace to the film’s overly deliberate pace. Fitting how Scorsese chose this to be his next project after diving into the depths of human depravity with such jocularity and glee in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Your patience with the material will be tested, but there is more than enough talent on screen to keep you invested in the interminable proceedings.
Garfield carries much of the film’s philosophical weight, but he is totally up to the challenge. Though his accent comes and goes at random, Garfield’s grasp on the particulars of Rodrigues’ spiritual test is strong. He both overplays and underplays it, but it is a far better performance than the one he gives in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Driver, though underused, is a marvel as always, playing Garupe as doubtful but never entirely fearful of his predicament. Neeson is the first face we see in the film, but the bulk of his screen-time comes in the third act, during which he and Garfield engage in one of the most intense dialogue scenes of 2016. He’s so good here that it’s easy to forgive the fact that he didn’t even bother to attempt a Portuguese accent. The Japanese cast is also excellent, with Issey Ogata and Shinya Tsukamoto standing out as the squawking Inquisitor Inoue Masashige and the pious Mokichi, respectively.
“Silence” has a lot on its mind, as you may have guessed, but in my understanding, all of the film’s conflate into a single image that Scorsese revisits throughout. It is El Greco’s “Portrait of Christ” (one of many, in fact), the face that Rodrigues is so infatuated with. This likeness, as El Greco realizes it, is more stoic than a rock. There is a divinity to it, but stare it for a bit longer, and it somehow becomes a bit unnerving. Is this really the face that Rodrigues worships? A face that, no matter how long one might look at it or pray to it, seems so strangely ambivalent to his suffering? Can this truly be the face of an icon worth suffering for? Worth dying for? Worth denying for the sake of one’s own life? Scorsese approaches questions like these from a multitude of angles, and though the end result may not be as perfect as he might have hoped, it is an undeniably powerful film that stands as one of his finest achievements.