Martin Scorsese has always been a filmmaker whose work has showcased a dialogue with faith, or more correctly a struggle with it, the kind of challenging journey every Christian is on: working to reconcile ambiguity of a sometimes seemingly silent God with day to day experience. The rest of us travel this journey via a journal or spiritual director or through coffee with our priests. Scorsese travels this road through his films. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was the most easily identified work in this thematic area previously though others do so to a greater or lesser extent, at least ethically and morally.
Temptation secured controversy through its depiction of a Jesus of Nazareth who became married and died eventually of old age. That controversy was stirred by people who hadn’t seen the film or read the brilliant novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. If they had, they’d have known that such a life for Jesus was depicted as a dream sequence, a kind of swooning vision Jesus experiences on the cross as he is led towards temptation to remove himself from the crucifixion.
Silence, while no less challenging in its own way, doesn’t contain such a hook to galvanise picketers.
In it, young Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco (Adam Driver) travel to Japan in the 16th Century to search for Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson) thought to have given up his faith to live as a local. Such an idea is anathema to the two young priests who cannot believe that their former teacher would do such a thing. But Christianity is outlawed throughout the country in a response to the success of such missionaries; this will not be an easy task. And easy it is not.
Scorsese’s film marks the end of a journey for him as well; this is a work he has developed and nurtured for many years and the attention brought by such a long gestation shows in numerous positive ways. The cinematography is sumptuous and the script based on Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel is a detailed work that builds moment by moment into a meditative yet tense proposition. The search of the two young priests is waylaid by numerous setbacks and challenges to the point that this quest is almost lost in the second act. In a world where your mere appearance brings persecution, detective work is not possible. But caring for tiny communities of secret Christians is, though fraught with danger.
Such danger is personified in the form of inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) whose drive to encourage suspected Christians to recant is powerfully felt by many in the film. Scorsese quite precisely sums up the conflict between the idea of staying true to one’s faith in the face of such an onslaught with the desire to preserve the lives of others. If you recant, you save your fellow prisoners’ lives. Is that not worth it? In that context the difference between Christian and activist is starkly drawn and the viewer is left with a mortally difficult choice. Beyond that stark dichotomy lies the more 21st century alternative: are both possible? For me, the present context was continually drawn into contrast with the torture (metaphorical and otherwise) of these poor souls. One character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) makes this notion even more challenging. His determination to recant and then repent seems reasonable if still soul destroying and alienating from his village community. It is no secret to say that the appearance of Father Ferreira in the film’s third act brings even more questions about the nature of faith but any more would be revealing too much.
So is God silent throughout the travails of the characters? Where is God in the sufferings of these persecuted Christians? These are questions the film and its title leaves open-ended but it does so in articulate manner. In this way I’ve heard the film cited as both a critique of Christianity and a defence. It certainly appears that both readings are valid. Rather than answer questions about God’s absence, the film depicts the response of humanity to that silence in barbarity as well as small acts of kindness.
Needless to say, the fact that we are talking about such questions in the context of a big budget American film is a miracle in itself. I wonder what viewers with less exposure to Christianity will think.
At two hours forty minutes, Silence is a gruelling experience and not for the faint hearted. Yet it is a rewarding film that will stay with viewers long after the credits roll, left with questions Scorsese poses with verve and accuracy.