In late 2013, Martin Scorsese came out with The Wolf of Wall Street. It was a three-hour movie loaded with incisive social commentary and raunchy hard-R (bordering on NC-17 in places) humor, racking up several prominent Oscar nods even as it broke the record for F-bombs dropped. The film did surprisingly well. Too bad lightning apparently didn’t strike twice.
Silence is Scorsese’s big passion project, finally released after 25 years in development. It clocks in at two hours and 41 minutes, which is still quite a long running time. Especially when the subject matter involves missionaries spreading the word of Christ to the hostile territory of feudal Japan. Oh, and the movie stars such extraordinary talents as Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Ciaran Hinds. The film has an impressive pedigree, yet it’s already been labelled a box-office flop.
So does the film deserve its critical buzz and better awards chances? Let’s start from the beginning.
Our premise begins with Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit priest sent to Japan as an ambassador of Christianity. Unfortunately, back in the early 1600s, the Japanese government was insanely fervent in rooting out Christians. After several years without radio contact, word finally gets back to Portugal that Ferreira has publicly denounced the faith. Eager to investigate, Ferreira’s old pupils (Rodrigues and Garrpe, respectively played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are granted permission from Ciaran Hinds’ character to make for Japan at great personal risk.
(To recap: That’s two Irishmen, a Californian, and a British guy born in L.A., all pretending to be Portuguese. Whatever.)
Ciaran Hinds’ role is basically a cameo. Liam Neeson appears for a brief prologue and doesn’t show up again until the two-hour mark, though his character is a constant offscreen presence. Adam Driver is absent through huge stretches of the film, including one baffling sequence roughly 40 minutes in, when he’s gone without explanation only to reappear just as quickly.
This is very much Andrew Garfield’s movie, as we watch his character go from one Japanese village to another, bringing Christ and comfort to peasants with little more than the mud on their feet. There’s a great sense of paranoia throughout the picture, as Rodrigues and his flock are in constant mortal peril and nobody’s entirely certain whom to trust. And there are some genuinely moving scenes of Rodrigues and Garrpe bringing hope and validation to communities of people who have just about literally nothing else besides their faith. There’s a very strong sense of “class warfare” going on, as it’s the dirt-poor peasants all clinging to Christianity while the clean and well-fed bourgeoisie are doing all the persecuting.
That said, the characters in the Japanese government get a healthy amount of screentime to explain their perspective, and they do admittedly have some good points. To start with, of course they’re going to resent the white guys from half a world away who come along uninvited to tell total strangers how things are going to be. Seriously, who do these missionaries think they are, with their selfish dream of a Christian world? We can see for ourselves that Buddhism — the preferred religion of the feudal Japanese lords — is also a religion of beauty and hope and solace to offer. Hell, it’s entirely possible that both religions are simply different ways of paying homage to the same omnipresent Supreme Being. Moreover, one character argues that Christianity in Japan may be doomed to fail due to errors in translation that were present at the beginning and continue to linger.
All of that aside, the Japanese Powers That Be are hardly blameless. It’s appalling hypocrisy how the Japanese carry themselves like a dignified and civilized society even as they bully their people, burn their towns, and subject their citizens to barbaric forms of torture and execution in the name of religious persecution. In many ways, watching the Japanese ruthlessly interrogate Christians and imprison them all in containment camps makes the film work surprisingly well as a Holocaust allegory.
(Side note: As a reminder, virtually nothing about the Holocaust was new. Except for the concept of extermination camps — detention facilities made for the express purpose of mass murder — everything Hitler did was pulled right off the shelf.)
Unfortunately, while the Japanese ruling powers are quite explicit in their desire for a single statewide religion to tamp down on any division or dissension, the film stops just short of explicitly commenting on religion as propaganda. There may be a fair bit of subtext about the Japanese government utilizing Buddhism to keep the masses in line, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether other nations are spreading the Gospel to advance their agendas further down the line, but none of that is really examined in any kind of detail. There’s nothing about the potential abuse of religion to brainwash people from all over the world for political purposes, and that’s definitely something within the scope of this film. Sure, that’s a bold and potentially dicey subject, but the movie already features crucifixions and decapitations in gruesome detail. Why back down now?
That little oversight aside, the film examines the issue of faith from all manner of angles, many of which come back to the title. There’s silence as a means of staying hidden from any passing inquisitors. There’s silence as a show of compliance or non-intervention. Perhaps most importantly, there’s praying to silence, asking for help from a God who may not be listening and sure as hell isn’t talking. Then again, if you’re straining to listen for something, it would be easiest to hear in silence anyway.
Through huge stretches of screen time, Rodrigues and his followers are forced to commit acts of blasphemy to stay alive, and Rodrigues watches so many Christians suffer horribly because he won’t deny his faith. Just how far is going too far? At what point can apostasy and betrayal be forgiven? Yes, suffering and martyrdom are commonly cited as shows of devotion to the Christian faith — mostly through the example of Jesus himself — but who would deign to compare their own journeys and trials to those of Christ the Lord? Pride is a sin, after all.
Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a lapsed Christian and the only one of his entire doomed family to publicly renounce the faith. Without getting too deep into spoilers, Kichijiro keeps on fucking up again and again and again. And every time, he comes to Rodrigues to confess his sins in the hope that he’s still not too far gone for redemption. Though seriously, just how many second chances can anyone have before Heaven is no longer an option? It’s a valid question, and the whole angle works in large part because of Kubozuka’s show-stealing performance.
Anyway, even if Rodrigues and those who follow him give into pressure and publicly reject Christianity, what of it? Does outward dishonesty really matter if one’s private and personal beliefs remain unchanged? If God really can judge us by whatever’s in our heart of hearts, then what else matters? And that would be a perfectly valid argument for anyone other than Rodrigues or his fellow priests, all of whom are leaders and role models for their fellow Christians in Japan.
Then there’s the theme of suffering. At some point — as with the peasants — a person gets to such an extraordinarily low point that faith is all they have. There’s pain and misery to such an extent that the only comfort left is belief in an afterlife and a higher power. (“There are no atheists in foxholes”, as the saying goes.) But at the same time, everyone has a breaking point. There’s suffering to the extent that only God can save you, and then there’s suffering so terribly for so long that maybe God isn’t watching anymore. Pushed hard enough and far enough, anyone will do anything. So at what point will Rodrigues be forced to relinquish his faith, even as it’s the only thing he has left?
The ostensible point and purpose of Christianity is to give people hope and help brighten the lives of those who practice it. So when Christianity has brought nothing but torture, death, poverty, and humiliation to those who practice it, does it still serve any purpose? Similarly (granted, the film never brings this up, but still), I could ask the same question of Buddhism, which is used by the Japanese higher-ups as an excuse to persecute and execute their own people.
These are all profound issues to explore, and the film makes ample use of its extended runtime to discuss all of them in graphic detail. The actors were a huge part of that, and I can’t possibly overstate how much of this film’s strength rests on its cast. Andrew Garfield carries the whole film like a champ, Liam Neeson makes a powerful impression with very little screen time, and Adam Driver plays his part beautifully. We’ve also got the aforementioned Kubozuka, we’ve got Tadanobu Asano as a silver-tongued interpreter, we’ve got Issei Ogata turning in a fantastic performance as the Japanese inquisitor… really, every last actor down to the least supporting player is a marvel to watch.
On a visual level, the film is breathtaking. Every shot is beautifully composed and breathtaking to look at. Unfortunately, the static shots were by far the best. On more than a few occasions, the camera pans way too far and way too quick in a way that looks rather jarring. The move has its purpose — in the moment, it very much looks like how someone in the scene might follow a series of events — but it still looked off-putting. As for the editing, the continuity glitches and moments of obvious ADR serve as proof that there were some really deep cuts even with the generous runtime.
Silence is a perfectly wonderful film, but not one to be watched lightly. Between the long running time, the heavy religious ponderings, and the graphic depictions of violent acts, this is definitely not a film for anyone going in unprepared. Still, the film is so beautifully made and superbly acted that it will be more than worth the effort for anyone open-minded and attentive enough to give it a try.