"Silence” is a new movie from Martin Scorsese that examines the filmmaker’s own enduring crisis of faith. “Silence” examines the price of faith through through the prism of 17th century Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver); on a mission to Japan to retrieve their former mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has reportedly abandoned his belief. For the young pastors, the notion that faith could be extinguished, especially in such a powerful vessel as Ferreria, inspires a prideful denial of the infallibility of Christianity.
In the opening moments of the film, through a mass of steam and fog, we find ourselves observing a mountain side with boiling and hissing springs. Emerging through the dense white are figures of a score of priests, restrained and racked by precise and stoic samurai soldiers. Amongst the carnage is Ferreira (Neeson). He’s forced to observe as the samurai begin to ladle the scalding water all over his disciples. Their skin instantly registers octopus like patterns of burns, and each disciple endures the suffering with an admirable bravery. Ferreira’s open grief begs the question; if practising faith means that people who follow in my teachings or merely those who have been charitable toward me will suffer heinous persecution and possibly death, should I continue to practice faith?
According to an interview with the L.A Times, Scorsese’s journey to bring “Silence” to the screen began in 1989. After reading the novel and feeling completely moved he was committed to bringing it to the silver screen. After a long time of financiers dropping out, the script not meeting his standards, and litigations from former producers that the project had not progressed in the 1990's as planned, “Silence” appeared to be destined to a life on a dusty shelf. At the culmination of “The Wolf of Wall Street” he abandoned the specific budget he’d laid out for the project and instead took the approach that he’d make the film for whatever budget he could get. On this return to his maverick approach, Scorsese told the L.A Times;
“what I’ve been trying to get at for a long time is the idea of forgiving yourself…I was able to do it at the end of ‘Raging Bull,’ when Jake recited the soliloquy from ‘On the Waterfront.’ I was able to do it on film. But I wasn’t able to do it in life. And I needed this movie to do it in my life.”
Scorsese is a man whose faith, morality and code has influenced his entire body of work. Perhaps this is both a project that haunted him in its unmade form; and haunted him in the way that it frames faith from the moving and deep perspective while being able to step back and objectively marvel at how quaint the concept is. Faith is not merely a subject in Scorsese films (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), it’s an omniscient guilt (“Mean Streets”) and it’s a reinforcement of hierarchies (“Goodfellas”). In the case of “Silence,” Japan and Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) became the detached skeptical perspective for the filmmaker to explore. The Japanese view of the Christian faith as a European phenomenon, unsuited to the people of Japan. It’s necessary to contrast the experiential toil of priests Rodrigues and Garrpe.
The most telling sequence of “Silence” occurs as their first flock is swarmed and interrogated by the forces of the Inquisitor. They are suspected of not only practicing Christianity but of revealing any remaining preachers. When they refuse to budge, the Inquisitors give them terms, four men from the village will be taken and those numbers can either include the priests they are concealing, or not. Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s Mokichi, the village’s strongest practitioner of faith, bravely accepts his fate. He would rather death than to give up the men who have brought practices of faith to his struggling peasant village. Scorsese stages this scene of misery with the precision and civility of a tea ceremony. There isn’t any chaos, the soldiers are posted like statues around the scene; the villagers are corralled in an orderly manner behind a barrier to witness the consequences of their faith.
Mokichi, Yôsuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, and two other villagers are selected. Kichijiro immediately renounces his faith in exchange for his life; while the two other souls choose their faith and death. The samurai squad rig up a series of crucifix like racks on the jagged rock edge of the ocean. Rigging up the prisoners to be battered by freezing water and slowly exhausted and drowned. Mokichi creates the quandary within the priests; particularly Rodrigues. There’s admirable nobility in the way that he conducts himself faced with torture and death. Mokichi stares out to the ocean, to the sublime natural force slowly engulfing him. The audience get up close and personal Mokichi, this reinforces the priests detachment but amplifies the impacts of the faith to a man with his life literally being washed away.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are nested on the mountainside; observing everything occurring in their flock’s submerged crucifixion. Before the Inquisitor force came to the village, Mokichi asks Rodrigues if he should denounce his faith by stepping on an image of Christ; Rodrigues’ instinct is to step on it. Emotionally overwhelmed, it takes Garrpe to remind him that their conduct in this kind of situation is paramount. So as Mokichi finds the fortitude to tackle the torture head on, he cauterises the faith in the flock around him. Surviving for days, starving, freezing and slowly drowning Mokichi punctuates his life with a melancholic hymn.
Mokichi is the martyr for the group and from an elevated position Rodrigues can be objectively moved by his faith. Rodrigues though reveals the hubris; pride and desire to not only live in the manner of Christ; but to be subjected to a faith testing ordeal. In a strange and near perverse way, Rodrigues feels as if he should have been the one to be in that position. Andrew Garfield does some truly wondrous work as Rodrigues. He’s battling the full gamut of emotions throughout this ordeal. The peaks are prideful; his effect on the resolve of the people around him makes him feel as if he’s driven to this purpose. At the worse he’s in a wrestle against the hubris and inflated self-perspective that he’s Christ-like.
Adam Driver’s Garrpe is a more troubled force. He’s passionate about their mission, keen for their progress to be swift. As they dive into the ever increasing treachery of the landscape and the tireless pursuits of the inquisitors, he finds his centre. There feels as though there is the potential for an entirely different film, had we followed Garrpe’s journey instead of focusing on Rodrigues. Liam Neeson’s Ferreira's impact resonates throughout the people in the film. In the flashbacks, he’s experiencing the torment that Rodrigues and Garrpe are; but on a more profound and terrible scale. While the young priests can’t fathom how one’s faith could wilt from the safety of their existing Church establishment; the oppressive Japanese all but guarantee their fate.
We’re denied the characters descent from the first moments of the film as they walk from their church to the harbour to make their voyage. They are passing in front of the audience but Scorsese won’t allow us in that vital beginning moment of the film to denote that the characters are descending into a trial or ascending to their higher purpose. Throughout the journey Scorsese echoes the characters sin and grace in the way that the camera reflects their journey.
Yôsuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro becomes the haunting figure throughout the film. He’s exiled to China and guides the priests to back to Japan to their first home. Their small devoted flock have carved out an existence for them to preach and survive. The wealth and bribes from the inquisitors are too much for the poor peasants, whose faith is the only solace in this gruelling tough existence. Kichijiro abuses his beliefs for his own ends; continuously betraying those around him to survive and endlessly wanting to confess and be absolved. Kichijiro is an inherent ‘Judas;’ a living demon that brings about the ugliness and the admirable in Rodrigues.
“Silence” is the kind of film that simultaneously speaks to one’s capacity for faith and calls it into question. If “The Last Temptation of Christ” was Scorsese humanising his deity, “Silence” is him begging for forgiveness; it’s the work of a man who wants to find meaning in the terrible pain surrounding the practice of his faith. When Rodrigues looks into a pool of water and see’s the image of Christ he laughs with elation; but that elation quickly turns to madness. Scorsese doesn’t want to see what he ought to be; he wants to see what he is.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô
Andrew Garfield ... Rodrigues
Adam Driver ... Garrpe
Liam Neeson ... Ferreira
Tadanobu Asano ... Interpreter
Ciarán Hinds ... Father Valignano
Issei Ogata ... Inoue
Shin'ya Tsukamoto ... Mokichi
Yoshi Oida ... Ichizo