Thirty years ago Martin Scorsese read the historical novel “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō and resolved to make a movie from it. Now it has finally arrived, and in many ways it represents the culmination of the great filmmaker’s cinematic representation of his own struggles with faith and religion.
These are not the same thing, and it is this dichotomy that “Silence” explores over a languid — but never for a moment dull — 161 minutes.
It is the semi-fictionalized tale of feudal Japan in the 1600s, when Christianity quietly spread over the island despite the brutal attempts by the ruling hierarchy to suppress it. This took the form of horrifying torture, beheadings, peasants being bound and burned alive if they refused to renounce their faith by stepping on a crude representation of Jesus.
The worst agonies were often left to the Western priests who led these hidden flocks. Early on we see several monks bound to crosses while steaming liquid from volcanic hot springs is drizzled over their bare flesh. No doubt the worst device was anazuri, a ritual in which a person was hung upside down over a pit, with a single cut behind the ear to slowly leach the life out of them drip by drip, even as the loss of blood prevents them from passing out.
The story begins with a pair of young Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who learn from their superior (Ciarán Hinds) that their beloved teacher committed apostasy (or renunciation of his faith) while spreading Christianity in Japan. Not believing what they consider a slander against Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), they resolve to undertake his mission for themselves and find him, if he still lives.
They are smuggled across the ocean with the help of Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a pitiable drunk whom they suspect of once having been a Christian himself, though he denies it. They wind up in a tiny village and soon begin ministering to a small underground of the faithful, which slowly grows as word spreads of the return of priests to Japan.
Eventually their faith is tested in ways I won’t give away, other than to say they must face the choice of whether it is possible to best serve the lessons of Christ by betraying his church.
The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is simply marvelous, and reminded me very much of Roland Joffe’s “The Mission.” The largely Japanese cast is also wonderful, particularly Shinya Tsukamoto as a simple farmer named Mokichi whose bravery and belief puts the priests’ own to shame, and Issey Ogata as the aging Inquisitor, who turns out to be much cleverer and more subtle than his cruel methods would suggest.
Scorsese, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, gives us a quietly powerful and evenhanded look at how people struggle with their relationship to God in the direst circumstances. The breathtaking beauty of the land is contrasted with the grubby aspect of the common folk, who clutch little rough-hewn crosses in hands blackened by toil, their teeth rotting out of their heads even as their hearts burst with the light of faith.
If you thought Garfield was mesmerizing as a man striving to adhere to his religious beliefs in “Hacksaw Ridge,” then his performance in this film goes many steps further.
I have no doubt that many people will struggle to watch a film like “Silence.” Most likely, they’ll simply stay away. The studio’s decision to virtually hide the movie from audiences and critics is baffling given its potential during the awards season. But I get the sense that Scorsese undertook this cinematic endeavor for other rewards.