The “silence” that Shūsaku Endō refers to in his landmark 1966 novel is wrapped around a simple conceit: where is God when you truly need him? How is it that in the most horrific of circumstances, where people are unmercifully tortured, why doesn’t God do anything to help his believers? Why are they faced with painful, unbroken silence?
Silence, in the original text, the 1971 Masahiro Shinoda film adaptation, and the 2016 Martin Scorsese one, makes sure that there are no easy answers to this question. The story forces the fervently religious to genuinely question the strength of their convictions in provocative terms — it’s a far cry from the endless glut of feel-good confirmation bias films that’s explicitly targeted to churchgoers, these days (e.g., 2014’s God’s Not Dead and 2017’s The Shack). At a punishing 160+ minutes, Scorsese’s Silence makes sure that viewers feel the exasperating despair that the lead characters experience, doing all it can to earn its ending. The film’s final shot — not too dissimilar to the rat running across the balcony at the end of The Departed (2006) — is too on-the-nose and ultimately threatens to undercut all of the philosophical underpinnings Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks have carefully constructed.
The story is simple: two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), are driven by both passion and naiveté when they travel to Japan in 1639 to look for Father Ferreira, who has been missing for 15 years and is thought to have shamefully apostatized, abandoning the church’s mission. Arriving in the small hamlet of Tomogi and with the aid of remorseful, drunken guide Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), the two priests soon learn that the townsfolk are frightened by The Inquisitor and his guards who hunt and torture practicing Christians. The Padres hold services in secret. The underground network of Christians are grateful that they can finally learn at the feet of genuine priests and confess their sins.
Early on, Rodrigues, the more idealistic of the two, is afraid that the few items he gives away — from rosary beads to crudely-crafted crosses — are being prized more than the teachings of Christ itself, at one point musing that the townsfolk “value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how can we deny them?” Meanwhile,Garupe — far less tolerant of the duo’s circumstances than Rodrigues — can’t stand hiding in the shadows. Garupe’s request to spend a small bit of time sunbathing “exposes” him and soon leads to The Inquisitor’s men coming to the town and demanding that suspected Christians do a simple gesture to show that they aren’t affiliated with the church: step on an image of Christ. Some guards are more severe about it than others, but the simple act is clearly meant to antagonize.
Some guards feel this is not torment enough, and insist they also spit on a cross, an act that many refuse to do leading them to brutal, unrelenting torture. Captured in bleak wide shots, the cruel punishments that The Inquisitor inflicts on self-proclaimed Christians serves as Silence‘s heaviest weight. The breathtaking acts of cruelty range from hanging people on crosses by the beach where waves crash upon their bodies (one believer lasted for a full four days, Rodrigues notes) to hanging people upside down, wrapped like mummies, a small cut in their necks forcing them to bleed out, slowly. During these brutal visages, The Inquisitor and his guards frequently tell a now-captured Padre Rodrigues that this is his doing, and if he finally relents and steps on the image of Jesus, that’s enough to stop their suffering. They place the moral imperative on him. Often observing from the confines of heavy wooden cages, the Japanese limit Rodrigues’ options until forgoing his own faith is the only way to save them.
Why such hostility? The history of Christianity in Japan is summed up succinctly in this film during the scenes where Rodrigues meets with Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), The Inquisitor. The young priest finds that all his training did not prepare him for such forceful, delicate moral quandaries, where Japanese culture remains strong and Christian lives hang in the balance. As Inoue notes, it’s not that he is against Christianity (he and others simply looked over Christian philosophies and determined they were of no value to Japanese culture) so much as that Japan, in his mind, isn’t a land of rich soil where any flower can grow; Japan is a swamp where outside plants don’t even have a chance to take root.
This angle is later reflected by Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not only renounced his faith so that others may live but is now writing books under the supervision of Inoue that point out how Christianity is based on failed philosophies. He tries to convince Rodrigues to apostatize, informing him that simple language barriers may be enough to prevent Christianity from taking root. In the recent past, another priest tried to explain the concept of the “son of god” to some while losing, in interpretation, that his teachings read as the “sun of god” to the Japanese. Thus, these new disciples have a hard time grasping that Christ has risen only twice when the “sun of god” rises every day.
Realizing this, Rodrigues begins questioning decades of failed attempts to get Christianity to take root in Japan. Should he hold on to his convictions? Despite the fact that The Inquisitor is dangling the fate of other lives on his decisions, does that make him truly guilty or culpable? After being betrayed by Kichijiro numerous times, and Kichijiro seeming to ask for forgiveness in earnest each time, can he truly be forgiven?
(Spoilers ahead.) It’s here that Scorsese decides to put his own imprint on the film, which greatly deviates from the various versions of Silence before. In all versions, tortured by the sight of so many people bleeding out while restrained upside down, Rodrigues, beaten down and demoralized, is given one last chance to step on the image of Christ, being assured by his captors that it’s “just a formality”. He hears a voice that he presumes to be Christ’s, telling him that it’s OK, that this is why he burdens himself with humankind’s sins. In the novel, Rodrigues shows genuine relief, the voice either being divine or derived from madness.
He’s given a job in Inoue’s outfit examining imported goods to look for images of Christianity and report them. After a man named Okada San’emon passes away, Rodrigues is given his name, his wife, and his child.
In the 1971 Shinoda version, Rodrigues meets his wife and absolutely ravishes her, robbed of secular pleasures for so long that he gives into them with relish, his “wife” remains lifeless as he assaults her. The film ends on that bleak, dire note. In Scorsese’s version, he lives out his remaining days in honorable service to Inoue. When he dies an old man, his body is placed in a large basket to be ceremoniously burned. Rumors and whispers swirl that the “converted” Rodrigues remained a Christian. Then, in the film’s final shot, as the basket with his body is being burned, the camera zooms onto his hand, clutching a crudely-crafted cross, which proceeds to burn with him.
In both the novel and the Shionda take, there’s ambiguity as to what happens in the latter half of Rodrigues’ life, leaving it open for questions as to whether or not he was a good Christian to finally apostatize in order to save the lives of others. Shionda’s take is certainly brutal, but also leaves the viewer with numerous questions as to what makes or brakes a Christian. Scorsese’s version is too neatly wrapped up, too definitive and conclusive, while leaving bizarre questions in its wake: For a man who spent so much time helping the Japanese rid Christian iconography from their culture, who put cross hat in his hand? Did he sneak it in? Was it his wife? If it was his wife, then was she a convert?). Referencing the aforementioned rat in The Departed, the final shot here is too simple a bow to tie onto a very philosophically complex film, and is one facet that prevents Silence from achieving true greatness.
On the Blu-ray release, a 25-minute short featurette called “Martin Scorsese’s Journey into Silence” is the only special feature, and it rests on the usual self-congratulatory talking heads discussing how good the movie is and how important it is. The only true moment of insight comes from a revelation that Inoue was once a practicing Christian before decrying his faith, which would’ve been a great detail for the film but is just casually tossed out, here. The entire featurette is, sadly, inconsequential.
Silence is several things: a cumbersome morality play for Christians; a fascinating examination of Japanese history; a look at the intersection of selflessness and ego and; a harsh rebuke of Western colonization. The novel is powerful and deliberately inconclusive, refusing to say what it’s overarching meaning is, leaving such questions for the reader to wade through. The 1971 film version is stark and brutal, from its utterly provocative ending to its scenes of men buried in from the neck down, a field of trampling horses racing toward them.
Scorsese’s take on this story is very much his own, filtered through his faith. Though no less brutal than Shinoda’s story, Scorsese’s goes farther than Endō’s version by providing an ending that wasn’t needed before. Silence is impossible to dismiss, but it will be loved by only a few. As a Scorsese movie, it’s powerful if thematically inconsistent. As an examination of piety, religion, and the clashes of opposing cultural philosophies, it nonetheless remains a good film — just know to expect more questions than answers.