Having been in some kind of development for the past quarter of a century, Martin Scorsese's Silence finally opens. And after a grim 2016 it emerges as the perfect gift for the new year: a deeply probing and contemplative epic exploring themes of persecution, integrity, truth and faith, which seems not only apt for our times, but necessary.
We open with the chaotic sounds of nature – a cacophony of insect chatter and animal wailing – and then we cut to "Silence".
The year is 1633 and the place is Japan. Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) provides the context. He's a Jesuit priest, captured and tortured by the Japanese for his faith. Jump to 1640. Two of Ferreira's students, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), are informed that Ferreira has gone AWOL in Japan. The crackdown on Christianity has turned that country into a dangerous place for Christians. Rumours abound that Ferreira has denounced his faith. But Rodrigues and Garrpe believe this is slander, and they set off for Japan to bring Ferreira home.
The wandering priests enter a coastal village and are welcomed by the native Japanese, who exist in crushing poverty, struggling under the ruthless, ever-watchful eye of Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). Suspected Christians are regularly dragged from their homes and forced to publicly denounce their God by stepping foot on the image of Jesus.
This "trampling" becomes a key weapon and point of conflict in the story. As the Japanese rulers repeatedly state, it is "just a formality". But for the flock it means the relinquishing of faith; a surrendering of who they are. It's called "korobu", literally meaning "to fall down".
When Rodrigues advises the villagers to go ahead and "trample", he is applying real-world advice to a punishment that threatens their very existence. Yet what about Rodrigues himself – why should he not heed his own advice? The Japanese believe it's a matter of ego; that Rodrigues is arrogant. But is it not his job to be held to a higher religious standard?
The story is seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Rodrigues: his horror at the cruelty of the ruling class; his ambivalent but ultimately loving relationship with Garrpe; his guilt and doubt about his faith and his mission; and finally the extent of his service under a repressive system. After all, what relief can he provide dead? Even if it makes him a hypocrite in life.
In the basic plot there are parallels with Heart of Darkness, and by extension Apocalypse Now, although don't expect a crazy Colonel Kurtz showdown. The inevitable confrontation with Ferreira is a philosophical fight. What is found is scary and threatening to Rodrigues, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Indeed, this third act shifts our view of the priests, who were once unquestionably saviours, to something less morally clear.
But the greatest parallels are with Scorsese's own film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Like Willem Dafoe's Christ, Garfield's Rodrigues is humanised. He's temperamental, doubtful, even hopeless at times. Always burdened by this divine responsibility, although perhaps less resentful than Nikos Kazantzakis's Son of God. Garfield brings great warmth to the role, and an agonising, largely internalised passion.
Special mention must go to the sound design. It's a quiet film but one which is conspicuously bereft of silence. At one point Rodrigues hands a token – a tiny wooden cross – to a poor villager, and it seems to chirrup like a living thing. Scorsese is reminding us that nature is never silent, and rarely is the human mind.
By the end, we are left with more questions than answers – which is fine, because they are questions we can all ask of ourselves. Narratively harking back after the lifetime of Rodrigues, we ask: If a person's faith is not permitted to be shown – not fetishised – does that mean it is vanquished? Belief, one might argue, is actually given strength by repressive rules, driven deeper, into the soul of the individual. (Or, for the atheists among us, into the unvoiced subconscious.)
All of which makes us look at the broader struggles portrayed throughout the film in general. The Inquisitor frequently refers to Japan as a swamp in whose soil Christianity can never take root. Indeed, as a structured organisation, Christianity may not be able to overthrow the Buddhist order. But on an individual level, leaving aside rituals or tokens, there will always be those who need relief from the burden of their guilt, or who struggle with their personal integrity.
In the wake of last year's events, it is sometimes mentioned that we are living in a "post-truth" world. That truth is the objective kind, whereas the "truth" to which Silence refers is something different: the truth that beneath the artefacts of our belief systems – the crosses and the books and the veils – lies a shared belief in humanity; a desire for order and community. In portraying the captors and captives in a nuanced way, without madness or outright evil, Scorsese isn't obfuscating this greater truth but illuminating it.
At 160 minutes, Silence looks on paper like a slog, but it's briefer than your average Middle-earth movie and it is never dull. This isn't Bela Tarr, where boredom is a currency; there is purpose and drama in every scene, and if you surrender to its perfectly paced lull then you will emerge self-reflective, and quite possibly into the most interesting post-cinema pub conversation ever.
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