Martin Scorsese has spent nearly his entire career exploring the infinite questions surrounding the necessary underlying faith of Catholicism and Christianity. It’s rare to find a film in his oeuvre that doesn’t, in any way, touch on these burning topics in the man’s mind, from the explicit theological dives of Mean Streets and The Last Temptation of Christ to the more tacitly themed Raging Bull. Silence, however, is his most straightforward plunge into this theistic territory, and it is an immaculately crafted film that will cause a deep reflection and examination of one’s conviction and doctrine.
Based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence follows the struggles of two Portuguese missionaries in 17th century Japan. Searching for their mentor who had renounced God after the brutal persecution by Japanese officials, Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe are harboured underground and begin ministering to the rural villagers in the few towns where faithful Christians have remained. Having witnessed the pain and suffering of the very people he believed he was bringing salvation to, Rodrigues is forced to question his own devotion to his work.
Eventually brought to the heel of the Japanese officials, the film turns from a tale of martyrdom by these missionaries and into a deliberate exploration of faith, religion, politics, pride, and morality. Pressed on all sides by his flock, his prison interpreter, the Japanese officials, and eventually even Ferreira himself, Rodrigues is pushed to the brink of not only his own understanding of Christ, but of his own sanity. There is no easy answer provided for Rodrigues: no glorious self sacrifice, no personal redemption. The only choices provided are either to forsake everything, or carry the immeasurable weight of fellow christian’s lives on his conscious forever.
Having spent the better part of three decades attempting to adapt Endō’s novel, Scorsese does an incredible job exploring the struggles and questions surrounding religious beliefs and martyrdom. There is little in terms of his traditional acrobatic cinematography, making this one of his most restrained films to date. In its place are static shots, often emphasizing the dirty, bloody, and fog-covered details that saturate each scene. It’s a long film, but this lack of brevity allows Scorsese to allow each moment breathe and contemplate. It is an assured directorial work by one of the masters of the art form, and that conviction flows to each of the actor’s performances.
With the film focusing on the trials of Father Rodrigues, the film requires a forceful and commanding performance from its leading man. Andrew Garfield, whose previous work has ranged from great (The Social Network) to serviceable (The Amazing Spider-Man), is absolutely up for the task. Garfield is dynamic in the role, as equally willing to go big and broad as he is to go small and subtle. Despite this dynamism, Garfield never lets the role feel manic or disconnected – every choice fits perfectly into his character’s arc and narrative.
Even with a spectacular star turn by Garfield, it is the supporting cast that shines through in Silence. Adam Driver’s steely resolve as Rodrigues’ cohort Garrpe provides a stunning contrast to the struggles of Rodrigues. Tadanobu Asano brings a warmth and intelligence to his role as Rodrigues Japanese interpreter, trading a multitude of observations and challenges with Rodrigues throughout his incarceration. Issey Ogata is a revelation as the film’s most explicit antagonist, the Japanese inquisitor, a man equally likely to make you laugh as he is to terrify you to your core, utilizing a hideous and pervasive nationalism to justify the unimaginable. Finally, Shinya Tsukamoto and Yōsuke Kubozuka are incredible as the two sides of the Christian coin, the former as the faithful servant Mokichi and the latter as the doubtful and weak Kichijiro — a clear parallel to the parable of the prodigal son.
Despite his relatively minor role as Father Ferreira, Liam Neeson provides what might be the most powerful performance of his long and illustrious career. Playing a beaten man fighting with his own damaged pride and fall from grace; Neeson internalizes his waves of emotion in his eyes and voice. It’s a remarkably understated performance, subtly weaving in the slightest variations that convey an immense amount of meaning and substance. Neeson’s Ferreira is central to Silence’s success, and his performance opposite Garfield in the film’s climactic moments ties together all of its thematic elements.
Silence is not an easy film to watch – it’s a long, slow building, and meditative film that is full of brutality and evil. It is, however, a film that will challenge the very beliefs at your core. Scorsese has always had a unique ability to convey his own Catholic introspection into his films, and Silence is the ideally pensive culmination of decades of that very exploration.