Silence is almost not a Scorsese movie. His camera watches from the middle distance; it doesn’t cut away, but keeps watching, standing still, but far from unmoved. There are no extra-long scenes, no musical cues, no freeze frames, no siren call for a life of crime. Every movement has its reason. This is a mostly quiet film. Nature sounds can be heard – the waves, the wind, footsteps, fire burning. There is some voiceover narration, and there are dialogues, all of them necessary, but silence is the point. The louder the movie gets, the more disquieting things are going on. Silence is not entertaining in any superficial way, but it’s definitely intriguing.
But of course Silence is undeniably a Scorsese pic. The plot is straightforward: Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, has gone missing in Japan, and Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) want to find him. In 17th century Japan, Christianity is outlawed, and there is a Great Inquisitor who hunts, lectures, tortures and kills Christians, mostly Japanese converts. Hundreds of thousands of converts have died. An ordained priest is of highest value to the Inquisitor because he can get to work on him and make him apostate, and many Japanese will do the same. There is a perfidious loophole: you can go free if you stomp on the image of the Saviour or spit on a crucifix in the Inquisitor’s court. This is a test of faith, a physical one as much as a spiritual one. There is belief, and sin, repentance and confession. This applies to most of Scorsese’s movies. What is Goodfellas if not a confession, asking for forgiveness? Or Raging Bull, with all its punishment? What might be new is that there is also stillness, hunger, and isolation, none of them less maddening than inner turmoil. Especially Adam Driver looks utterly emaciated.
In a way, Scorsese sets up a table in front of you with different weights and a pair of scales. The weights read faith, endurance, pride, apostasy, survival, pain, betrayal, and so on. What weights there are, and how much they weigh measured against each other, is for you to decide. That, of course, is a faulty metaphor because it is a personal one, but there are no clear answers in the movie. There is the opinion of the Great Inquisitor who thinks that Christianity is not only meaningless, but cannot take root in a country like Japan. Rodrigues begs to differ. It’s ironic that Rodrigues has a higher opinion of Japan than the Inquisitor, who calls it a swamp. Rodrigues goes to jail, and his faith is severely tested. Garupe has strong faith, but is impatient.
Besides dying for your faith or renouncing it in order to live, there is a third option. What if stomping on a religious image is just an act to regain your freedom to live your Christian life in secret? You publicly apostate, but remain a Christian in your heart. That is a lie, of course, and unconscionable for a priest, but what if it lets you get away? Isn’t that a small price to pay? Seen that way, the character of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the Japanese fisherman who brings the priests from China to Japan, is the most interesting, because survival is more important to him than religious honesty. Rodrigues and Garupe are intriguing to watch, because they are well-written roles and well cast and acted, but with them, you wait for the point where they give in, or not. Kichijiro’s faith is no longer pure, but he is ready to negotiate, while the others are not. It’s worthwhile to focus on him during a second viewing, but I will have to let the first viewing settle for a few days.
Silence is not a film you can like or dislike just like that; if you go see it, it stays with you, if you don’t, you can’t ignore its existence, at least not now. You can’t go and expect to be entertained in any conventional way. All the scenes seem to point in more than one direction. Rodrigues’ and Garupe’s quest for Ferreira leads them to small villages of secret Christian communities. They perform mass and baptisms, they get temporary shelter and protection in return. That is not their motivation, but they do it gladly, and with fervour. When they want to travel on, the villagers hold them back because they hunger for spiritual guidance. Should they stay or resume their search? What does their faith tell them to do? It’s not at all that easy, not for them, not for the audience. This is a hard film, done with compassion, but also with conviction.