Lochley Shaddock

In Martin Scorsese’s passion-project Silence, there is a scene where three men are tied to three crosses. They are left on a shoreline, starving, as the tide comes and nearly drowns them and then slinks back out into the ocean. They are being persecuted for their adherence to Christianity which has been outlawed in 17th century Japan (the film’s setting). One man lasts four days, the others less. Like these men, some viewers will find themselves drowning in the religious overtones Scorsese brings to each and every scene of his 26-years-in-the-making religious epic.

At the heart of the film is the question, how does one hold onto their faith when God is always silent to their prayers? Silence runs just shy of three hours and yet has no room for any other questions than this. In summary, the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of Father Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) as he attempts to search for Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), his old mentor, who has apostatised and renounced God during his attempts to bring Christianity to Japan. Along his journey, Rodriguez witnesses the unflinching devotion to his faith and to him by the ‘Hidden Christian’ Japanese, whilst his own devotion wavers.

Though Rodriguez’s struggle is the heart of Silence, several set pieces involving those around him are possibly the most enthralling and heart-wrenching of the film and remind us why Scorsese is a master. Characters don’t just die in this movie; they are dragged through hell and back. It feels like every torture method possible in feudal Japan is depicted, including being drowned in the ocean, being burned alive, beheadings, being slowly bled to death, the method previously mentioned with the crosses, and the most important to the film, psychological torture. The battle for belief is, after all, fought in the mind.

Visually, this is one of Scorsese’s most restrained and powerful films yet. It is also the strongest work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto since his Oscar-nominated effort with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Prieto transforms Taiwan (the primary shooting location) into a simultaneously lush and emotionally desolate wasteland where every nook and cranny conceals high danger. Scorsese’s typical verve within his filmography is distilled here into raw experience; there are no stylistic tricks. At various points, the visuals echo great Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. However, as Scorsese is co-writer of the script with Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) some of the voice-overs feel lazier and more jarring than in other Scorsese films – voice-overs are a staple of his style.

A student of world cinema, Scorsese brings a true Japanese aesthetic to the production that will have you blown away at the fact that this epic was made for only $40 million U.S., enough to pay for one or maybe two actors alone in a typical Hollywood blockbuster. Each scene is executed with such simplistic brilliance and yet the film is so grounded in its characters that this only heightens your emotional involvement, not distracting from it.

The cast, both American and Japanese, are simply extraordinary. Andrew Garfield and Yōsuke Kubozuka (as the tortured Kichijiro), in particular, give Oscar-worthy performances.

Ultimately, the passion Scorsese drew upon to get this film made is the thing holding it back; the central question. Scorsese said of the film in a recent interview that for Rodriguez “the struggle [was] for the very essence of faith, stripping away everything else around it.” Scorsese too, leaves no room for doubt. The film culminates in Rodriguez finding solace in God again in spite of the toll his religious journey has taken upon him; but why? To a Catholic, such as Scorsese, this ending may seem satisfying or even obvious, but for those lacking in religious conviction and belief, the ending isn’t grounded in any logic previous established within the film. So, despite the challenging and yet riveting two and a half hours that lead up to the film’s final moments, it ultimately asks the audience to accept an act of blind faith.

Silence is in cinemas now.

  • Cavan Gallagher
    Cavan Gallagher
    20 February 2017 at 11:42 am

    What I took from the film was that we’re supposed to walk away questioning Rodriguez’s faith. The underlying investigation seems to be not of faith itself, but the psychology it can engender. He’s been raised under a very specific code that has not only determined how he sees the world, but the destiny he feels is natural – hence, the repeated scenes of him refusing to denounce his god despite the Japanese making it expressly clear that doing so will cause harm to come to the people he is supposed to be protecting.

    Maybe it’s my lapsed Catholicism flaring up, but I found this stuff very recognizable – not just regarding the ego-driven aspects of faith, but also the way you personalize your faith as a relationship you feel with the figure of worship. Take, for example, the Jesus voiceovers, which seem to be Rodriguez’s way of rationalizing his eventual apostasy. His programming is too deeply-ingrained for torture or philosophical arguments to make him relax his position in and of themselves, but these questions work their way into his subconscious and eventually bear fruit in the only context he can accept: as the voice of Jesus, granting him permission to go with things for the greater good. This also resolves for Rodriguez the ‘silence’ of the film’s title: the expectation that one’s connection with God be exclusive and direct, and the confusion that arises when this does not happen.

    Rodriguez’s flaw is not blind faith, but the obliviousness and hubris surrounding it. He may believe that his refusal to capitulate is an act of selflessness, but in truth it’s because he wants to be devout in the image his cultural programming has given him: martyrdom as vanity (Note how he at one point hallucinates Jesus’ face over his own reflection).

    What he eventually learns from Ferreira and the Japanese, is that accepting another culture and their beliefs is not only necessary, but that the imperative to win others over to one’s own faith is a disruptive and destructive pursuit that is ultimately pointless: even the converted Japanese are simply adopting an interpretation of the missionaries’ faith, and it is not the same thing.

    Just because Rodriguez never fully abandons his faith, does not mean that his faith has changed: his arc is instead towards learning to recognize the vanity of conversion, and to keep that faith personal.

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