“Silence” opens in mist, and that pervasive haziness quickly comes to serve as a visual metaphor for the unresolvable spiritual crisis at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, which was previously brought to the screen – in even more austere form – by Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda in 1971. A passion project the Catholic director has sought to make for the better part of three decades, Scorsese’s religious epic is consumed with the question of God’s muteness in the face of hardship – and, considering that lack of feedback, how man can truly know whether he or she is acting in accordance with His will. It’s a conundrum that lies at the root of faith (of any kind), and one that’s addressed – to stirring, if somewhat sluggish, effect – by this tale of two 17th century Jesuit priests who venture from their native Portugal to Japan in search of their missing mentor.
Those intrepid travelers are fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), who against the counsel of an elder priest (Ciarán Hinds), set off to Japan to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’s already been seen – in a smoke-enshrouded prologue – struggling to maintain his faith while Japanese captors demand that he, and his fellow Christians, apostatize (i.e. publicly denounce God). Japan is determined to rid the country of Christianity and its missionaries, which it views as an intruding imperialist threat. Yet despite being fully aware of the danger they may face, Rodrigues and Garrpe confidently embark on their mission, convinced of that their faith imparts “the truth” and that it is their holy duty to spread it wherever and whenever possible.
That their staunch conviction – and undertaking – is founded on an arrogant sense of superiority isn’t lost on Scorsese, especially in his material’s later-going. At least initially, however, the film concentrates on its protagonists’ arrival in Japan with the aid of a wild-haired Mifune-esque guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who’s introduced in a drunken slumber scratching his crotch. Once ashore, they’re embraced by a group of Christians who hide them in a remote mountainside cabin, lest their presence come to the attention of Inspector Inoue (Issey Ogata), whose notorious reign of terror involves forcing Christians to denounce their beliefs by performing fumi-e (i.e. stepping on the image of Christ), as well as brutally torturing and killing them. In these early passages, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjure a bevy of stunning images whose interplay of light and dark recalls classical European artwork, none better than a shot of Garfield and Driver crouching low against a dark cave wall that’s suddenly illuminated by a torch. And particularly in the long, gaunt face of Driver, he finds a countenance seemingly born of the period.
The longer the duo preaches the gospel, perform baptisms, and provide confession, the more Rodrigues’ doubts begin to mount – a situation exacerbated by the fact that, after a visit to Kichijiro’s home town, he and Garrpe are forced to split up and flee the encroaching forces of Inoue. Alas, their flight is short lived, as Rodrigues is soon captured and imprisoned. It’s then that “Silence” segues into its most theologically rich chapter, as Inoue presents Rodrigues – first via a series of gruesome killings that Scorsese depicts with bracing bluntness, and then through a meeting with an acolyte – with a choice: apostatize in order to spare five Christians from horrific torture (hanging over a pit upside-down), or continue clinging to Christ and listen to the dying screams of your fellow believers.
Though it involves Judas-like betrayals and instances of gruesome violence, “Silence” eschews the bloodthirsty zealousness of“The Passion of the Christ,” as well as the more audacious formal devices of Scorsese’s own “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Instead, the director recounts his tale with somber, sober aesthetics. In both silence and conversation, Scorsese conveys a palpable sense of his characters’ piety (and dilemma). Even more shrewdly, he evokes the pride of Rodrigues – epitomized by the priest’s desire to fashion his beard-and-long-locked appearance after Christ, and by a telling moment in which he sees his reflection in a river turn into Jesus’ face. That Rodrigues responds to this (divine or insane?) sight by cackling madly speaks to the character’s escalating confusion over his own spiritual and moral direction, and throughout, Garfield embodies his priest with a mixture of devotion and cockiness that helps lay the groundwork for his eventual ordeal.
Nonetheless, if immaculately realized, “Silence” is also an increasingly monotonous, patience-testing slow-burner, with characters repeatedly voicing their fears about God’s silence (often in voiceover), debating the merits of apostatizing in service of a compassionate cause, and suffering in quiet. Moreover, its fundamental quandary is one that feels primarily pertinent to a bygone era, since only those who still believe public declarations of faith are more important than behaving in a benevolent (Christian) manner will view Rodrigues’ choice as a difficult one (non-believers, meanwhile, may wonder what all the fuss is about). Which is to say, the film feels as if it hinges on an issue of relevance to only those of the most pious sort – and in a final, misguided CG-aided shot, it casts off any lingering vestiges of ambiguity about Scorsese’s own opinion on its central issue. [B]