Andrew Garfield and Yoshi Oida in Silence (2016)

In Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’, Is God Even Listening?

Hunted Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan wrestle with the possibility that all their suffering, and that of their persecuted followers, could be meaningless.

“Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

— Shusaku Endo, Silence (1996)

There was a time when Martin Scorsese’s films offered a litany of suffering and doubt. From 1973’s Mean Streets to The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Scorsese’s characters formed a spectrum encompassing depression on one end, masochism and perpetual sacrifice on the other, with shadings of turbulent introspection and spiritual malaise in between. Following the commercial successes of movies like Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), the filmmaker’s interests shifted to stories featuring less fervent internal dynamics.

Now, with his long-gestating adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence, Scorsese returns to a scenario where souls are lost and seeking answers. Set in 17th-century Japan, a world distant from his usual contemporary American settings, the movie presents characters who willingly undertake punishments as brutal as anything experienced by the great martyrs of his early work, from Jake LaMotta to Jesus Christ.

Silence relates the Japanese Christians’ persecution to that endured by previous Christians, when they secretly worshiped in the Roman catacombs. After years of freely proselytizing in Japan, Catholic priests and their followers are now hunted down and executed like enemies of the state. A grim, fog-shrouded prologue shows Jesuit missionary Ferreira (Liam Neeson) forced to watch Christians being tortured with scalding water. Years later, Ferreira’s students, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), arrive in the Portuguese colony of Macau. They also witness brutal abuses but reject a rumor that their mentor Ferreira has become an apostate and renounced the Church.

Traveling to Japan, Rodrigues and Garrpe plan to preach to the faithful, convert everyone else they can, and investigate what happened to Ferreira. They’re welcomed with fervent joy by villagers who have been practicing their Catholicism in secret. At first, this appears to be everything that two idealistic young priests, burning with the order’s intellectual discipline and militaristic exactitude, could hope for. But doubts soon multiply.

For one thing, the villagers are terrified they will be discovered: local authorities are paying 100 pieces of silver for anybody who turns in a Christian, and 300 for a priest. This means Rodrigues and Garrpe must hide out during the day, only sneaking out at night to say mass, give baptisms, and hear confessions. Despite the obvious difficulties, Rodrigues is enthusiastic. Garfield’s eyes are alight with a sense of purpose, making Rodrigues appear at once vulnerable and convinced of his righteous cause. At the same time, Driver provides Garrpe with a bit of an edge, more guarded as he sets to the task before them.

Based on a novel by a conflicted Japanese Catholic and directed by a lapsed and questing Italian American Catholic, Silence considers the daily difficulties of faith. Rodrigues’ narration threads in some of the novel’s internal monologues, as the film raises questions about the purpose of nearly everything he and Garrpe are doing, including whether God is even listening to his fervent prayers. “Why do they have to suffer so much?”, he wonders about the villagers. He also wonders if their obsession with trinkets like crosses and rosary beads means that they don’t quite understand the gospel he thinks he’s teaching them.

Simultaneously, the film gives credible support to Rodrigues’ belief that the Christian faith, with its doctrines of fairness and love and the promise of a beautiful paradise after death, is a useful balm for these starving farmers and fishermen, suffering under a feudal system. As much as Rodrigues believes, though, their isolation and hunger grind both priests down. When an opportunity comes up to visit another village’s Christians, Rodrigues ignores the warnings against it and goes anyway. When the authorities finally put their hands on him and his flock, the fatalistic impulses underlying the film’s querulous screenplay become suddenly, burningly clear.

We’re used to taking the side of prisoners in such situations, as they hold onto their beliefs despite horrific, ongoing torment. But once Rodrigues faces interrogation by the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), such expectations are overturned. Rodrigues options are these: recant his faith by symbolically stepping on a fumie, a representation of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Though Rodrigues is told this is a “formality”, his own faith says that the desecration of such physical objects, or merely the verbal renunciation of faith, is an almost intolerable sin that could potentially lead to damnation.

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Worse, Rodrigues learns of another consequence from the Inquisitor. A fascinatingly blasé figure whose precise diction and squeaky vocal register evince more patient forbearance than sadistic intent, the Inquisitor says that Rodrigues won’t be the only one suffering. In addition, the poor villagers will be burned alive, drowned or tortured to death. The Inquisitor observes that there’s no purpose in killing Christians who welcome the idea of martyrdom, a truism about religious fanaticism that will echo chillingly for modern audiences. He wants to make an example of Rodrigues by asking what’s more important to him, his love for his fellow Christians or his (perhaps merely prideful) insistence on not recanting. What is the Christian thing for Rodrigues to do? Does it even matter?

Like other questing-Catholic artists, Scorsese alternates his tougher work with entertainments. As it poses profound questions and runs nearly three hours long, Silence is not going to endear itself to fans of Scorsese’s recent, plot-driven films, like Shutter Island or Hugo. Silence offers other sorts of rewards. The intensity of Garfield’s performance and the screenplay’s intellectual and spiritual entanglements and resistance to easy resolutions make this an exceptionally thoughtful and gripping drama.

RATING 8 / 10