Directed by: Martin Scorsese
The Plot: It’s 1640 and Christianity has stagnated upon the rock of Japan. Two Jesuit priests (Garfield, Driver) are sent to investigate the apparent public apostasy of one of their order. (Neeson) Once they arrive in that hard country they stumble into a test of faith much more galling than simply finding and restoring their lost brother.
The Film: Scorsese’s Silence is an exploration of Christian conversion, sacrifice, persecution, and ultimately the contractual obligations of faith, set in 1640’s Japan. Of course there are great blocks of boredom and brutality to wade through with this one. This is a raw, indulgent, hard-bitten experience. Largely dressed down for a period film, with the main focus being on the punishing crusade Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield’s fledgling Jesuits take on to return one of their own to the fold. Silence may be deprecated as another morbid Christian film built for Masses, and less so for the masses – and perhaps it is, I suspect a large portion of the general population will walk away from this motion picture disgruntled at having spent two hours and forty one minutes of their evening watching Christian peasants getting their rotten teeth kicked in – but to do so would ignore the spiritual conundrum Martin Scorsese is trying to unravel with his new movie.
Outside of Silence being Marty’s personal odyssey into the roots of his Catholic faith, the film is an analysis of the martyr complex inherent to Christianity. In their introductory scene Silence’s twin Jesuits, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe, already carry the fever of the fervent doomed in their eyes. These are fully activated junior proxies of the Christian Lord, eyes alight, their backs already yearning for the the thongs of the scourge, their plump hearts hungry for the nail. Their destination in post-Feudal Japan more than willing to give them both if caught trespassing on native soil.
Silence opens on an inquisition hearing already in full swing. Jesuit priests are stretched out on crosses – a setting they’re indelibly wired to find great succor in – as Japanese torturers dribble boiling hot drops of water onto their heads and shoulders. The priests moan and writhe in ecclesiastical ecstasy. This technique of halting Christianity’s progress by punishing its vendors just isn’t working. These long haired gaijins are waaaaaaay too into it.
By the time Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe arrive, tactics have changed drastically. The books have been shut on easy suicide. Martyr surrogacy is the new vogue. By decree of the Royal Japanese Inquisitor the ministers must watch the impoverished locals suffer the lethal consequences of accepting their message, unless the Jesuits themselves deny Christ through public acts of blasphemy.
Religious ecstasy soon turns to hard agony.
It may appear at first that Father Rodrigues is Scorsese’s cinematic stand-in for Jesus Christ. During the first half of the film we experience the elation of the young priest as he treads in the footsteps of his Lord. Spreading the word of God through the villages of Japan, hiding from the law, persevering on nothing more than faith and verse and little else materially. There’s an electricity about Father Rodrigues – he’s out there in the wild, actually doing it. In what should turn out to be the most iconic frame of film from this movie, the Jesuit priest peers into a stream and sees the face of the messiah staring back at him. At his side is his Japanese guide Kichijiro – a drunken apostate. For all intents and purposes, Hiroshima’s own Judas Iscariot.
But Scorsese isn’t happy with that narrative. It’s been done before. At a certain point he abandons the analogy of Christ and his pet Judas, and flips the script into a tale of twin Peters. (no dirty double entendre intended) In the New Testament the Apostle Peter is the disciple that denied Christ in his darkest hour – the same hour Father Rodrigues finds himself facing in the film as the Japanese Inquisition unleashes the full brunt of their barbarity on his flock. Ultimately Rodrigues caves. And when he does Scorsese clearly adds the trill of a cock crowing. It’s in Luke 22: 61, 62 for those having trouble grasping the reference.
Though Kichijiro’s lot is at first cast in the Judas role, (easily one of the few amenable characters in this story and one of the very few light spots in this heavy, heavy film) and at one point he even sells Rodrigues out for thirty pieces of silver, there’s still a lesson to learn from this treason. Martin Scorsese knows the New Testament well. He’s fully aware that Jesus Christ told his followers that they had to forgive each other seventy-seven times, (a low bid, and abstract, the point being to forgive no matter what) which of course means that even after many betrayals Scorsese still sends his foil, Kichijiro, shuffling on his knees back to his caged minister to plead once more for God’s forgiveness. As Peter did after turning his back on Christ. As Judas Iscariot might have done if he hadn’t of hung himself.
The final acts of Silence, indeed, the real compelling portions of this 161 minute feature, make an argument that martyrdom can take on many forms. It’s not always the default option of excoriating death by being pulverized with flails and fastened to crucifixes. Employing its most cruel application, sometimes martyrdom can be made to last an entire lifespan.
The Verdict: The temperature in Hollywood may be chilly toward Christianity – and even more so toward the persecution of said Christians – but that didn’t stop Martin Scorsese from unapologetically creating one of the most challenging Christian films of this generation. Still, there’s no getting around it. Silence can, and will be, a slog to get through for nearly everyone. This writer included. When it isn’t slow it’s sadistic. And sometimes it can be both in the same breath. It’s also a profound, complex motion picture with some impressive insights on faith and scripture. No getting around that either. Silence is a movie I’m positive I’ll be mulling over impulsively for the foreseeable future.