There are images and ideas in Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE that are likely to resound in many viewers’ hearts and minds long after they leave the movie theater. A cinematic rendering of Shusaku Endo’s novel (same title), it is powerful and heartbreaking. Exposing the atrocity of religious persecution SILENCE’S theatrical release couldn’t be more timely. In that context, it poses important ethical and spiritual questions that warrant ongoing discussion among religious and secularists alike. It deserves to find a wide audience. But viewers be warned: there are benefits and burdens in watching the film. Scorsese’s devotion to Endo’s book has compelled this director and co-screenwriter to give practically every page of the novel its cinematic equivalent. This may be too much for the average filmgoer in terms of length but more so because of the graphic violence in its depiction of persecuted Christians.
The context of SILENCE is historical: In 17th century Japan, the ruling class decided it best for its national interest to eradicate Christianity from their country. The faith was closely associated with (and at times in complete cooperation with) Western Imperialism, Colonialism, Slavery and various manipulations of international trade. Worse, the infighting among Christians, between denominations scandalized the Japanese and caused them grave concern.
Prior to the film’s time frame, the Japanese government sanctioned the arrest, torture and execution of Catholic priests to intimidate the Christian faithful. But the priests’ refusal to recant their faith and subsequent martyrdom strengthened the Japanese Christians and inspired growing number of converts. In retaliation, officials evolved alternative measures: mercilessly torturing Christian hostages in front of priests who could only stop the assault by publicly denying Christ. Should the priest refuse to deny his faith, the Japanese continued to subject Christians to excruciating torment, to slow and painful deaths with pastors forced to watch the proceedings. This is the historical and ethically abhorrent situation SILENCE explores and the implications are mind boggling.
How can a religious leader in conscience dictate martyrdom to his flock? To do so would be an offence against free will, against personal integrity. Catholic priests of the 17th and any century would be fully cognizant of the centrality of free will as the divine spark that makes each person in the image of God. And yet for a priest to apostatize is to betray his life, his vocation and the faith that those poor tortured souls embraced.
Most viewers would know, a steadfast confession of faith under threat of torture and death is a solemn and courageous act. For Christians, martyrdom witnesses to the promises of Christ–the reality of heaven, of resurrection and life in the world to come. It exemplifies the value of suffering for a greater truth beyond worldly comfort at the same time it personifies personal integrity—confirming integrity as a value to believer and nonbeliever alike. Delving deeper into this issue SILENCE not only explores the motivations and choices the priests make but asks “What would each viewer do?” If the characters make decisions that do not correspond to the viewer’s own, what then? This is the magnetic power of SILENCE. It is intent in engaging an audience into this segment of world history to ask that very question. What’s more, the film repeats the insistence of the novel that viewers refrain from judging the priests as much as humanly possible. The heart of Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s film is a cry toward compassion, not judgment. In that it is a very contemporary approach to a 17th Century phenomenon, flavoring it with the seasons of this age: tolerance and a strong sensibility of “to each his own.”
I have spent hours wrestling with these questions about martyrdom, apostasy, courage and human weakness and the mystery of suffering and have written a short essay about it. If you would like to wrestle with me, I invite you to read that piece featured on a separate page of my blog. (It follows immediately below.) If you prefer to grapple on the issue on your own, here is the balance of my assessment of SILENCE as a film:
In addition to the power of its story and the ways it evokes important issues of our day, SILENCE offers stunning visuals indicative of the masterful eyes of director Martin Scorsese. His vision is achieved in collaboration with the excellent cinematography by Rodrigo Presto, Production Design by Dante Ferretti and Art Direction supervised by Wen-Ying Huang. All the other disciplines Set Decoration, Costume design, Makeup and Special Effects are equally first rate. The performances by the mostly Asian cast are stunning. Issei Ogata as the Japanese Inquisitor is repulsively chilling, a master of understatement, irony and cunning. Tadanobu Asano as the Interpreter evidences contempt for the Christians without going “over the top” and even offers subtle suggestions of empathy or is it mockery? His nuanced impersonation makes it hard to say and makes his performance captivating. Best of all, Yosuka Kubozuka is excellent as the conflicted coward Kichijrio, the tortured soul who alternately betrays and seeks reconciliation with the Church with astounding regularity.
The priests are portrayed by Liam Neeson (Ferreira), Andrew Garfield (Rodrigues) and Adam Driver (Garupe). Each man approaches his respective role with honesty and conviction but unfortunately, not consistently. Only in certain scenes do they project the full force of the war between faith and doubt within their characters. Andrew Garfield has the hardest job in the central role and thus his strengths and weaknesses as an actor stand out above the rest. Adam Driver, in a less expansive role, comes across best. It may be that the opening scenes don’t give either Garfield or Driver sufficient opportunity to express the kind of deep faith that would motivate them to go to a country where their people are tortured. As is, the important expository scenes are handled without much emotion and both actors appear noncommittal, or just plain passive. This makes their inner turmoil harder to express in subsequent scenes, although, ultimately, I think both succeed in satisfactory if not always inspiring ways. Taking the film in its totality, these early scenes prevent the movie from becoming a great artistic achievement. Perhaps the weight and gravity of this undertaking (or financial or time constraints) brought director Martin Scorsese to neglect the importance of these moments, or perhaps the script (credited to Scorsese and Jay Cocks) failed in this regard. One thing’s for sure, SILENCE needed stronger scenes expressing the young priests’ devotion at the onset. Perhaps evidencing their early encounters with Father Ferreira in seminary and /or their decisions to be ordained could have moved this movie into the realm of perfection. Still, it is a very fine film and the rest of the script and most of the direction is excellent. Unquestionably, SILENCE deserves to be seen.