Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, Jesuit priests, learn their mentor has abandoned his faith after the Tokugawa shogunate tortured him. Seeking an opportunity to save their mentor and bring light to the tormented Christian faithful of Japan, Rodrigues and Garupe embark on a dangerous journey. Martin Scorsese directs Silence, with the screenplay written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, and stars Andrew Garfield, Issey Ogata, and Adam Driver.
"We're still on the road and it's never going to end. I thought it would for a little while, but once I was there, I realized no. Even in the editing room, it's unfinished. It will always be unfinished."
-Martin Scorsese on NCR-
At 74, Martin Scorsese still possesses the moral fire needed to criticize vapid arguments against faith, strength, and what it means to be a good person. Silence is one of Scorsese's most fiery protests, arguing both for the necessity of faith in a world seemingly consumed with God's silence. My mistake going into Silence was that Scorsese was making his version of Ingmar Bergman's trilogy about the silence of God. I was wrong. Scorsese, even at the twilight of his life, does not hear silence in human suffering, but the patient hand of a creator waiting for the opportunity to lift us when we need it the most.
I'm not going to join the argument as to whether this is a healthy way to express religious faith or whether we should be discussing faith at all in the 21st century. My optimistic agnosticism embraces the wonder of existence to the point where I have to accept that when people communicate so clearly an embrace of the divine I have to pay attention. The reverse of this is also true, and I must sit and listen to those stories of people who had their faith tested only to come out wanting. With Silence, Scorsese provides both of these perspectives, and refuses to give us easy answers about what is the best way to guide one another in faith.
Scorsese examines the necessity of deep faith in violent times by refusing to look away from suffering. With cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese creates a look that is less painterly and more a tableau of the human condition. There is little resistance among the many Japanese Christians or the Jesuit priests looking to provide comfort. The camera floats among the masses of human bodies, capturing in closeup human flesh catching fire, largely focused on those unable to look away from the pain so that our attention might turn to the one person who has to look away.
Sometimes this is Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) and other times Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield). The moral weight each carries brings up important questions to Silence. Why, for Kichijiro, would he continue to embrace a faith that leads his loved ones into fire and water from his fellow-man? In the case of Rodrigues, why wade into waters where the climate is so violent against his faith? Scorsese's way of answering these questions is by not answering them and instead focusing that the violence central to Silence has almost nothing to do with faith.
Yes, it's true that Christians were targeted and mercilessly executed following the Shimabara Rebellion. But the Japanese Christians were easy scapegoats to enact a routine of oppression which reconsolidated the shogunate's power. Watch the face of Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata) and his powerful companions when torturing those of Christian faith. They are taking delight in how powerfully their will is sustained over the suffering Christians, mocking Rogrigues with questions as to why he would allow the suffering to continue when all he has to do is recant his faith, and offering no replacement in return. Silence is about the mechanisms of fascism, which has no religion, by providing a slim human element in focusing so heavily on the ritual of apostasy that occurs after the violent domination of the Japanese Christians.
This is painfully relevant to our current political and cultural times. In the United States, we just elected a President who encouraged followers to stamp out resistance, laugh at their pain, and roll on with vague promises about how he will use power to secure a better life for his voters. Within our culture we have an ongoing discussion about whether it's okay to punch Nazis (spoiler: it is), and faith seems as far away as it ever has with movies built around hatefully dismissing believers. It's hard not to think of these things when I watch Masashige laughing through another debate with Rodrigues only to lead Rodrigues to another pageantry of human suffering.
The performers, for their part, distill the best parts of their skills to bring Silence to its cathartic end. Garfield has done decent enough work in the past but Silence hones in on where he is compelling. His strength isn't in playing brash heroes with real power, but deluded pawns who fail to see what little influence they have is just slack in the rope from before the real masters yank him back. Adam Driver, who plays Rodrigues' priest partner Francisco Garupe, simultaneously terrifies and inspires as one possessed with faith. Special points go to Ogata, who makes Masashige so tremendously satisfied in his torture that he almost becomes likeable in his speeches to Rodrigues, making clear the fascistic intentions of the shogunate.
Scorsese builds these elements into a closing act where all that's left are questions and the experience of time passing. Whether Rodrigues commits apostasy is irrelevant to the big picture, or the plot, of Silence as the suffering will continue no matter his choice. What matters is what awaits us at the end of our lives, what we choose to believe, and how we can best use our circumstances to die with dignity. Little gestures make saints as well as grand miracles, and Rodrigues' tiny rebellion at the end of his life hints at the hope he still has that his suffering meant something. The gesture haunts me, and I left Silence with faith and fear for this world.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Issey Ogata, and Adam Driver.