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After reading, be sure to listen to our in-depth podcast (above) as we discuss the film in greater detail. In the hills of the Japanese countryside, in the 1640s, at a spot pocked by hot springs steaming with pools of scalding water, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is brought to witness the torture of other Christians, a practice that is sweeping the nation beholden by law to follow Buddhism. He can stop it if he renounces his faith, to commit apostasy, and forever banish the religion from the land and we are left to wonder his decision until years later, his church in Portugal receives a message in secret that Ferreira has turned, married, and become Japanese.
Believing the letter of slanderous nature, two of his students, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) volunteer to venture to the foreign land and learn the truth, to reinstate the faith, and find their teacher, convinced he is alive and in need of rescue. Helped by a secret society of Christians, they find shelter in the mountains, living in squalor, hidden by day and let out at night to hear the confessions of those living in seclusion and terrible fear.
Unable to remain in hiding. Rodrigues is eventually captured by local shoguns and taken to the feet of Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata), a brutal inquisitor who demands the priest step upon a placard of Christ, signaling his renouncement. When he refuses, he is forced to watch his followers suffer as he strives in his search for Ferreira, always his own faith in the love he feels for God in question.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, Silence embraces its title but not it ways that would seem at first obvious, despite moments that allows it to grip with great fortitude. It instead defines those who refuse to speak against the faith they take to their hearts and the response their Lord seems to have for them as they suffer in a land where Christians are seen as a cancerous spread of villainy. Throughout the film, Rodrigues narrates not in exposition but in commentary of his own shattering as he endures the worst with no sign of divine intervention or forgiveness.
This culminates more so in the second half in a film that runs near three hours, as he falls under great duress, forced to watch as Christian faithfuls face their oppressor’s wrath, many who have been at his side and offered him sanctuary in his time of hiding. He understands that his church is built upon the blood of martyrs, and yet he is told the price for his glory is their torment, all met with continued silence from the source of his faith. All the while, he is haunted by an image of Christ that inspires and yet afflicts him.
As the story shifts from mist-covered mountains to the bleak corners of the encampment, there are some familiar themes at play, paralleling many films where a fiercely resolved man faces great trials of abuse from an opponent striving to break him. Inoue makes for an imposing counter to Rodrigues, Ogata an impressive presence as a wise, elderly authority who bouts with the padre in verbal exchanges that challenge each other on faith and family, country and culture. This makes for some interesting moments that allows these characters to become more clearly defined.
But the movie does not settle for the expected. Many films deal with torture and harrowing punishments, nearly all extremely personal, drawing us close to those that suffer, making the intolerable a kind of defiance, a fuel that will lead to comeuppance. Scorsese has purpose in the interminable pace and distance, a kind of suffering imposed on us that unlike those before, never feels pointed toward a coming redemption but rather a path of terrible truths. We desperately want the horrors to end, and we feel a tug for the comfort of what we have long come accustomed to in such stories, but Scorsese refuses to comply, instead keeping the experience one of no absolutes, no message of clarity, only the realities of a historical story that tries to offer meaning to the power of faith.
Silence is a film that may test one’s patience, one that finds few others in its company. Layered in moments of profound emotional stress, there is much about the film that will have great affect. A religious film to be sure, it is never one that feels led by its teachings but rather intent on giving stage to a troublesome chapter–admittedly one of many–in the pages of religion. As a film, it is an astonishing achievement, one that breaks hard from the director’s usual style, and as such, like his brilliant but undervalued Age of Innocence, feels highly accomplished and immensely confident even while it lacks broad appeal.
Movie description: Silence is a 2016 drama about a pair of priests who travel to Japan in search of their mentor who is said to have turned from his faith while his religion and its worshipers are persecuted.
Director(s): Martin Scorsese
Actor(s): Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata
Genre: Drama, History