Why is God so silent? Why doesn’t God hear the prayers and stop the endless suffering of believers? These are the questions that lie behind the title of Martin Scorsese’s epic film about Jesuit priests in Japan in 1640.
Silence stars Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who comes to Japan in 1640 in search of his former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira is rumoured to have renounced his faith and married a Japanese woman, something Rodrigues refuses to believe. Accompanying Rodrigues on his search is Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), a passionate priest who always seems to be living on the edge, which is particularly challenging when you arrive in a country whose an isolationist government is killing off all Christians who refuse to recant.
In the decades prior to 1640, over 300,000 Japanese had been converted to Christianity by Jesuit missionaries. By the time Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive on the shores of Japan, only a few pockets of Christians remain, tucked away in remote communities, though these are also threatened by the infamous Inquisitor (Issey Ogata). In the weeks and months ahead, Rodrigues and Garrpe will experience incredible highs (as they encounter groups of believers who are thrilled by their arrival) and incredible lows (as they watch believers tortured and executed for their beliefs and feel powerless to stop it). The lows will challenge their own beliefs. Rodrigues, in particular, begins to struggle with his doubts and with God’s unending silence, placing him in a vulnerable position when he finally meets the Inquisitor and the Inquisitor’s interpreter (Tadanobu Asano).
The interpreter, in particular, presents the voice of calm reason, suggesting to Rodrigues that Buddhism is much better suited to the needs of the Japanese people (or any people) than Christianity. Indeed, the Buddhists in Silence come across as much wiser than the Jesuits, allowing for the possibility that Scorsese (and the 1966 novel, by Shusaku Endo, that Silence is based on) is exposing some of the inadequacies and hypocrisies of Christianity. However, to me, the Buddhists came across as cruel and often hypocritical themselves. In fact, I found few sympathetic characters in Silence.
One of the failures of the film, in my opinion, is this ambiguous depiction of faith/belief. There is no convincing case made for any faith and yet faith seems to be particularly lifted up in Silence. For example, the question of why Jesuit missionaries are desperate to bring Jesus to Japan is never adequately addressed. Is it just the misguided obsession with saving people’s souls from an eternity in hell?
Silence is dedicated to Japanese Christians and their pastors. I found that dedication (which appears at the end of the film) almost as confusing as the film itself. What is Scorsese trying to say with that dedication? That he admires the Jesuit priests who sacrificed so much to try to bring Jesus to Japan; that he thinks they were doing a great thing and that the small number of Christians who remain in Japan are a testament to their courage and commitment? If so (and I know Scorsese is a devout Catholic), then it colours how I understand this epic and its message, and not in a helpful way.
There are many things which make Silence a superior film. The cinematography is sublime and helps to create the film’s many breathtaking scenes. The acting is generally quite strong, especially in the case of some of the Japanese actors, like Asano, and Yôsuke Kubozuka, who plays Kichijiro, a comedic Judas figure who is a constant thorn in Rodrigues’s side. But there were, for me, a number of acting and character flaws. For one thing, while Garfield’s performance may be his best ever, he doesn’t strike me as the best choice for his role, and his character’s actions did not always feel convincing. And while the Japanese actors may have performed well, I frequently questioned the choice of words and actions for their characters.
If it sounds like I have mixed feelings about Silence, that is correct. Insofar as the film is about Rodrigues’s spiritual doubts in light of the Japanese context he is facing, Silence is a haunting profound film that works for me. However, insofar as Silence is supposed to convey any kind of message about faith and about what is really driving the characters, I am left confused and unconvinced, with endless questions, like:
How does the Catholic Inquisition of the Middle Ages relate to the Japanese Inquisitor?
Why is the recanting of faith so often depicted in a positive light (i.e. what is that trying to tell us)?
Why is the work of the Jesuit missionaries shown to be both so positive and so useless (did the converts worship the ‘sun’ instead of the ‘son’)?
Why are the references to colonialism so subtle?
Are all the Jesuits in the film to be viewed as heroes?
Is it supposed to be viewed as positive that Christianity survived in such an inhospitable environment?
In the end, I must award Scorsese’s beautiful haunting film ***+, but overall I was disappointed and confused, and hoping for something more spiritually insightful (like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which changed my life).