Silence Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rated R | 161 Minutes
Release Date: December 23, 2016 (Limited)
“Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent?”
In 1988, at a screening for religious leaders of his new film The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese was approached by Archbishop Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, who presented the filmmaker with a copy of Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed novel Silence.
Published in 1966, the novel is the story of Jesuit missionaries sent to 17th century Japan, where they endure persecution in the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) that followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of Catholic Christian peasants during the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule.
Influenced by the Catholic Endō’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, the book made a huge impression on Scorsese, who was raised in a strong Catholic family and very much involved in religion. Adapting the novel for the screen has been a passion project of Scorsese’s since the ’90s — a 2009 production almost happened, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio del Toro, and Gael García Bernal in negotiations to star, but quickly fell into development hell.
After a decades-long artistic journey, Scorsese has finally brought Endō’s seminal work to the big screen, with a thoughtful adaptation that stands among the director’s finest work. Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) and Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Paterson) star as Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, Jesuit priests who journey to Japan in search of their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List).
The priests are smuggled into the country by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a drunkard seeking absolution, who leads them to the run-down village of Tomogi. There they meet Ichizo (Yoshi Oida), Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto), and other Christians who are forced to worship in secret, for fear of being persecuted and tortured by Inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata). Inoue is trying to eradicate Christianity from Japan, rounding up suspected Christians and forcing them to renounce their faith or face an agonizing death.
While ministering to the hidden believers who practice their faith in fear for their lives, Rodrigues and Garupe hear what must be a lie: Father Ferreira has renounced his religion, taken a Japanese wife, and become a Buddhist scholar. Together, the young priests will face great danger – and test the limits of their faith – in discovering the truth about their missing teacher.
Silence is an examination of, and meditation upon, Christianity and confronts profound issues about the nature of faith. Rodrigues understands suffering for the sake of one’s faith, but he struggles over whether it is prideful to refuse to recant when doing so will end another’s suffering. As Inoue forces Christians to apostatize by stepping on an image of Jesus or be tortured to death, Rodrigues must decide what is more important: denouncing God as an act of love, or allowing the faithful to endure unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Inquisitor. Does God hear the cries and prayers of His believers, or are they praying to no one?
Exquisitely crafted by Scorsese and longtime collaborators Rodrigo Prieto (cinematographer, The Wolf of Wall Street), Dante Ferretti (production designer, Hugo), and Thelma Schoonmaker (editor, The Departed), Silence is no doubt one of the most beautiful films of 2016, with arresting imagery that channels the graceful movements of Malick and Kurosawa while retaining Scorsese’s distinctive artistry.
The performances are equally strong, with great supporting turns by Tsukamoto, Kubozuka, and Tadanobu Asano (Mongol), who plays Inoue’s interpreter. As for the main characters, Silence has a white savior complex (see Dances with Wolves, Glory, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Samurai, Amistad, Avatar, etc.) that nearly derails Scorsese’s passion project. American, English, and Irish actors are playing Portuguese men while speaking English in questionable Latin accents, whereas Japan’s Edo period has been painstakingly recreated, like something out of a Kenji Mizoguchi film. It’s an odd juxtaposition and one that can’t be ignored in any serious discussion of the film.
And then there’s the runtime. At 161 minutes, Silence is a test of faith for its characters and an exercise in patience for its audience, and while the film achieves some powerful moments that resonate, it’s unrelentingly dour. It’s an ambitious and complex movie with layers of meaning, but like peeling an onion, the act of watching Silence can be more frustrating than rewarding. Multiple viewings may prove illuminating, but it’s hard to imagine revisiting this one like one might with Scorsese’s more energetic works, e.g., Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.
Still, Martin Scorsese’s Silence demands to be seen at least once, to be admired even if it isn’t exactly enjoyable. It feels like the summation of the filmmaker’s career – a powerful testament to his Catholic faith and a kind of cinematic penance for a life plagued by doubt.