The notion of ‘faith-based cinema’ nowadays generally refers to low-budget garbage like the output of PureFlix Studios (Do You Believe? God’s Not Dead) that do not seek to do anything more than shamelessly, and often insultingly pander to evangelical Christian audiences. Then, whenever a director gets a rare chance to actually try something riskier, it usually ends up proving controversial among religious audiences, such as Darren Aronofsky’s recent Noah. No stranger to controversy himself, Martin Scorsese last took on the weighty subject in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that caused sufficient outrage to be banned in multiple countries and a terrorist attack at a Paris cinema occurred at a showing. Scorsese isn’t seeking to offend at all though, and at the heart of his latest film Silence, a project he’s wanted to tackle for over two decades, is a sincere exploration of faith and its consequences.
Adapted by Scorsese himself and Jay Cocks from Shūsaku Endō 1966 novel, the film follows two Portuguese Jesuit Priests, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) who learn that their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apostatised in Japan, where Christianity is currently outlawed. Refusing to believe it, they set out on a secret mission there to find him. Upon arrival they discover than Japan’s Christians live in hiding, being unable to publicly display their faith, and that a group led by a man known as ‘the inquisitor’ go around local villages seeking out these underground Christians. Upon discovery, they are required to step on an image of Christ or face torture and execution.
While the whole film, and in particular this first section is stunningly photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, capturing both the beauty and harshness of the land, the film does admittedly meander for a while, with a great length of time dedicated to the Priests offering council to the Japanese Underground Christians while failing to make much progress in their search for Ferreira. However when ‘the inquisitor’ learns of them, the film them the film moves into considerably more fascinating territory.
In lesser hands, making a modern film about the historical persecution of Christians could just feed into the inexplicable American Christian persecution complex we see evident in the works of PureFlix mentioned earlier, but Scorsese is not interested in just making Christian audiences more secure in their beliefs, this a challenging, punishing film, but not without good reason. It’s a work of art that asks many difficult questions without offering any easy solutions. The uncomfortable atmosphere Scorsese creates often reflects this, employing almost no musical score and not cutting away from the harsher tortures inflicted on screen.
The surest sign that Silence does not seek to be a one-sided film can be seen in the presence and arguments made by a number of its Japanese characters. While the film is all from Garfield’s perspective, Driver and Neeson are only present in the first and final thirds respectively, and in its second act the film introduces a couple of fascinating Japanese characters. One of the film’s absolute stand-out sequences occurs when an imprisoned Rodrigues demands to see Governor Inoue Masashige, played by Japanese comedian Issey Ogata. The Governor, over more than one exchange explains at length to Rodrigues that the Christian doctrine is incompatible with Japanese culture, that they do not want these missionaries coming over and trying to convert people.
It’s tremendously powerful stuff, and of course, the film, nor anyone sensible will be in favour of the literal torture and execution of people for not renouncing they’re beliefs, but it allows the Governor to make some really quite compelling points. An even more memorable exchange occurs between Rodrigues and a character only called ‘the interpreter (Ichi the Killer’s Tadanobu Satō). He’s a tough character to pin down, he’s friendly enough to Rodrigues at first and it’s unclear how much he believes versus simply interpreting, but when we first meet him, he chastises Rodrigues over his lack of knowledge of Japanese language or culture. Telling him how like his predecessors he “came here to teach, but would not learn”. Later as, a more dire situation faces Rodrigues, the interpreter looks to him and says the single most thought-provoking line of dialogue I’ve heard in a movie in years;
“Think about the suffering you have inflicted on these people just because of your selfish dream of a Christian Japan.”
I don’t know if this comes from the source novel or the screenwriters, but I’ve barely been able to stop thinking about this moment since I saw the film. (Also I hope I remembered the wording correctly, I couldn’t find an exact transcription online)
Rodrigues is consistent in his worldview; if the Gospel of Christ is true in Portugal it must be true here, but he is forced to acknowledge that all these people being killed wouldn’t be if his predecessors hadn’t come over to convert them in the first place. Of course, the Governor is not really seeking the apostasy of the Japanese Christians anyway; he needs the priest to apostatise as an example to them. Seeing Rodrigues directly called out in this manner re-contextualises a lot of what’s come before and our perception of many of the Japanese characters, and will quite possibly provoke the faithful into considering some of the more troubling moral implications of the actions of missionaries coming over to convert people to their language and religion.
Another factor that makes this struggle facing Rodrigues so compelling is that in many ways his situation could apply to any number of belief systems, there are no explicit details discussed that contradict between Japanese Buddhism and Portuguese Jesuit Christianity, just that they are two religions in conflict. However, one’s own religious beliefs of lack thereof may come into play when assessing Rodrigues’ actions. Christian viewers may feel more sympathy towards him, and while I don’t know how strong Scorsese’s Catholic faith is nowadays, the film for the most part does not come down on either side, he sincerely believes he’s doing the right thing, but he allows multiple people to be tortured and killed over his beliefs. (for what it’s worth, I thought this film was incredible and my cinema was full of Catholic Nuns who outwardly appeared to think similarly)
The point where this is most apparent is that for the longest time he doesn’t even consider the difference between publicly renouncing his faith whilst retaining it privately, even though he could save lives by doing so. This notion, and the guilt that comes from this is touched on earlier in the film though, in a sub-plot concerning an alcoholic fisherman who first guides the priests to Japan. It’s believable that Rodrigues would struggle with it so, but it will prove hard to relate for many I feel. Incidentally, in portraying this internal and external struggle, Andrew Garfield is doing career best work here, and the fact that he was Oscar-nominated for Hacksaw Ridge over this is baffling.
The film’s title itself refers to God’s inaction over all this, “Am I just praying to silence?” Rodrigues is forced to ask in a rare moment of doubt. Silence is a brilliantly made and phenomenally challenging film; a hugely thought-provoking work that requires its audience to consider many tough questions about faith that are still relevant today despite its historical context. I feel this will only become more rewarding with time, and it might be a harder sell than many of his films, but it’s another absolutely essential work from arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker.