One of Martin Scrosese’s best and powerful works, Silence delves into the collision between religion, government and culture, as chronicled in an immersive and relevant story of faith tested against a violent oppression and the deafening silence of God.
It has been well reported that Silence is Scorsese’s passion project. It’s easy to see why. Based on the 1966 acclaimed novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, the film deals in religion as a cultural, philosophical and psychological force. Scorsese in many ways is the premiere Catholic director. Having been raised in a devout Catholic household, Scorsese had strong aspirations to become a priest before deciding to study film. His movies, from Mean Streets, to The Last Temptation of Christ, to even gangster fair such as The Departed, deals with Catholic themes and Catholic symbology in different, controversial, and excellent results. Silence continues that fashion, yet probes deeper, burrowing into the complexities of Christian faith and its tested relationship with government authority, as seen from Christianity’s early inception during Roman rule, to the brutality of numerous atheist Communist dictatorships, through to the current battle against radical Islamic governments and terrorist groups.
Silence is set during a different era of Christian Catholic oppression: 14th century Japan, where Catholicism was outlawed under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu who viewed Christianity, especially that from the Catholic order of Jesuits, to be a threat to Japanese culture and sovereignty. Quickly Catholic missionaries were expelled, and those who stayed were executed and martyred alongside those Japanese who converted to Christianity.
This is the climate in which Silence begins, as two Jesuit priests from Portugal – Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) – travel to Japan to locate their mentor Father Cristavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they receive word he has renounced his faith. Quickly the pair find themselves not only strangers in a strange land, but a land where the threat of exposure to authorities can endanger them and the desperate hidden “Kristians” they tend to. Soon they are found out by the shogunate authorities. “The ground of the Church is built upon the blood of the martyrs” Rodrigues defiantly declares to his captors. To his dismay, it would not be him but his flock that would be subjected to torture, unless Rodrigues apostasies his faith by stepping on a crude image of Christ.
Scorsese’s films have long featured graphic depictions of violence in his movies. Yet the violence portrayed in Silence holds a different power, the impact of its scenes of torture uncomfortable yet vital in their realism and power. The implications in the violence of Silence penetrates many levels psychological and spiritual. While the flesh of these martyrs is subjected to cruelty, so too is the mind and the soul in this forceful snatching of faith so integrated to the existence of being.
Garfield portrays the victim of this spiritual rape (and that is exactly what is being done) with a gritty defiance, mournful sorrow, and perhaps even pride to make for a completely absorbing and emotionally powerful performance worthy of much, much more praise than what is being offered. Performances such as that of Rodriguez exemplify why the American born Brit is one of the best actors working today. He digs deep into the core of a character fighting a battle of two fronts – the first from the torture of the shogunake, and the second from the deafening silence of God which he prays and dedicated himself to – and conjures a performance of emotional and spiritual depth, completely sympathetic in this plight and worthy of the investment placed in him during the films 161 minute run time.
For 25 years Scorsese has tried to make Silence. Although a story about an ancient time, its themes of oppression and persecution of religious peoples is still as relevant as ever. Look at Syria, North Korea, Nigeria, India… scores have been persecuted and/or killed for their Christian faith. Where the silence of the mainstream media in covering this issue is deafening in its own right, a film such as Silence serves as a powerful reminder of faith tested, faith tortured, and faith defined, yet never faith destroyed.
Scorsese’s reasons for making this passion project are his own. But one would like to think it is a statement that, while the world can try and shun its Christian sons and daughters, the cries from the souls from those perished and persecuted shall not fall on deaf ears.