GOD BLESS Martin Scorsese... although Christians probably still have a bone to pick with him. Nearly three decades after his ambitious, misunderstood The Last Temptation of Christ, Marty’s back interpreting another difficult work, Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence, using its story to pick at the stitches of his New York Catholic upbringing. Silence, which is perhaps Scorsese’s most overtly religious movie, is self-recommending: It’s a nearly three-hour film about Portuguese missionaries in post-feudal Japan, and a slow meditation on the nature of one’s faith in one Jesus Christ. Based on that description, you’re either all in or all out. If you’re in, you’re lucky, because Scorsese has some really interesting questions to pose to you.
The silence of the title is God’s silence—the vast, indifferent quiet that makes up half of any conversation with the great unknown, be it a simple prayer, a fully staged Catholic mass, or even a lonely, primordial yawp. That silence continually confronts Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit priest traveling in Japan to find his mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’s apparently renounced his faith and gone full Japanese. Accompanied by another priest, Garrpe (Adam Driver), Rodrigues encounters a country that’s inhospitable and difficult to traverse, buttressed on one side by volcanic mountains and the other by cold, surging sea. And yet the two Jesuits find converted Christians hiding throughout the countryside’s hills and valleys—desperate peasants who cling to their faith like starving people cling to crusts of bread.
Japan at that time was a country of religious persecution, with patrols of Buddhist inquisitors forcing Christian upstarts to renounce, or apostatize, their faith under penalty of all types of punishments, including death. The stakes seem pretty low: Inquisitors often simply ask the faithful to step upon an image of Christ, a symbolic rejection of his teachings. And yet when Catholicism and Edo-period Japan—both cultures that put premiums on symbolism and power structures—come into conflict, these types of gestures can often mean life or death.
Silence is a fascinating but at times glacial movie, meant to evoke the prolonged struggle of the Portuguese priests in this very foreign land. The acting is stunning, especially Garfield and a truly emaciated-looking Driver, as well as Issei Ogata, who plays the chief inquisitor in a flat-out bizarre performance that borders on kabuki caricature but rings true in its own weird way. Scorsese’s sense of kinetic energy, used so fluently in his well-known mafia movies, doesn’t really mix with this particular subject matter, so he holds back more than one might expect. Still, there are numerous breathtaking sequences as unforgettable as any he’s filmed, notably a pair of torture processes undertaken at the ocean’s edge. There are also long, quiet stretches that evoke the silence of the title, and dialogue that strips apart the ideas of faith and doubt. If apostatizing Jesus Christ can save a life, is it the wrong thing for a faithful person to do? Rodrigues finds his own answer, but Scorsese is more interested in the question. And he asks it in the form of this gorgeous, provocative, difficult film, which never tells the viewer how to think. And if 21st-century Christians have a problem with the nature of Scorsese’s question, that only recommends Silence all the more.