To begin with a winner: there’s a wonderful debut role in Silence of the Japanese Inquisitor played by Issey Ogata that arrives on our screens with the same powerful impact as Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. It is a riveting performance smiling all the way. At one point, momentarily defeated in debate on religion, he physically deflates until he is a sack on the floor. Whenever Ogata appears the drama rises to classic Greek level and we are captivated by his villainous charm, for he is a lot smarter than the average priest.
Martin Scorsese hasn’t been altogether successful when given blockbuster budgets for his essays in spirituality and faith. While visually captivating, it’s hard to argue The Last Temptation of Christ, or Kundrun hold together intellectually for the protracted duration of their length. Silence is almost two-and-half hours long and suffers the same criticism. (Make sure you buy a comfy seat.)
When you think back over Scorsese’s distinguished career the same theme surfaces film after film: men either foolish or mad pursue an obsession until it destroys them. It was all there to see in his student graduation film, a short showing a man shaving at a bathroom mirror. He doesn’t stop soaping and shaving until his skin peels, all six layers, and blood runs down his face. The image repels. It sums up Scorsese’s cinematic motif.
Silence is a film about how messianic Christians have lots of ways of screwing up lives and not saving souls. Scorsese wanted to become a priest when he was a youth. How much of that claim is embellished by time and the telling, or a strong motivation for his faith films we won’t ever know until a biography appears, but a Catholic he is, and once baptised, a Catholic in the concept of guilt he remains. Forgiveness for sins infuses this story.
The story, like the book on which it is based, takes place in 17th-century Japan, when Christians were sailing from Europe to spread the good word, which as we all know is western imperialism by another name. Christianity makes plain there is only one god and he’s damn intolerant of imposters. In any other doctrine this would be call an unacceptable monopoly.
The story centres on two young Portuguese priests, fathers Sebastião Rodrigues, (Andrew Garfield) also the narrator, and Francisco Garrpe, (Adam Driver) who receive the demoralizing news that their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, (Liam Neeson), has finally renounced his faith after years of violent persecution in the land of the rising sun.
They cannot believe their role model would do such a thing, and so sure of his rectitude they set off full of idealism to find him, taking with them only what they can carry. The story takes on the scent of Scott the polar explorer, so badly organised is their mission, and so full of conceit are they for its righteousness.
This is one hellova serious movie – only Ogata gives us pleasure and amusement – a film so up itself serious in prolonged passages of nothingness that I wanted to read a book until the narrative perked up again.
“I pray, but I’m lost,” says Rodrigues to a God he assumes is listening. “Am I just praying to silence?” That’s the eternal question, of course, and Scorsese hopes we have asked the same question and relate to his message. For a short, very short spell as a youth I know I did before deciding an all-seeing, all-mighty deity in the sky was as plausible as a giant Tunnock’s Tea Cake powering the sun.
On their arrival in Japan, Rodrigues and Garrpe are astounded to meet terrified fellow believers who pray in secret knowing to get caught means certain death for their beliefs. In our world that would be categorised as masochism, and indeed a lot of passionately held Christian tradition and beliefs is a kind of self-loathing and self-flagellation. As men of the cloth, the two emissaries are enemies of the state they now find themselves in and wedded.
The main characters grow weary and gaunt after willingly accepting the same harsh treatment at the hands of a Ogata’s sly, imperious Inquisitor that their predecessors endured. Ogata is determined Christianity will “not take root in our soil”. He sees it as a dangerous doctrine.
Among Silence‘s three leading holy men, it’s Driver who stirs us the most with his intensity. His face seems lifted out of an icon painting or an El Greco masterwork: angular, quizzical, his gaze perpetually downcast, but angry. And it’s pleasant to see Liam Neeson not running around Paris firing a gun, busting Eastern European chops searching for his kidnapped daughter, or wrestling with mad-eyed wolves in the snowy wilderness. He’s back to doing real acting, not running or driving fast.
At the Inquisitor’s order, village elders who refuse to prove their Buddhism by stamping on the face of Christ on a medallion are tortured in various ways, by water, fire and earth. It takes one Christian four days to succumb to the sea’s rhythmic violence. In his last moments he begins singing a quiet song – a moment that, like many in Silence, should be haunting yet somehow isn’t.
Mist rises from the ground and settles in the air; the faithful confer among themselves in tall grass, and people whisper in fear behind wooden slatted houses in the hope they can hide them from their oppressors.
Japan is a swamp, more than one Japanese character tells Rodrigues, and out of that sacrificial blood no new ideas will take root, nothing will grow – his efforts to bring the locals closer to Christ are for naught. Should Rodrigues end his suffering? There are moments I wanted him to do just that so I could get home.
Rodrigues ponders the kind of questions he can’t hope to answer on his lonesome. For a practical Scot like myself, there are other philosophical matters to ruminate over beyond asking if a western god exists. Christians often speak of a personal relationship with God, but for Scorsese’s young priest his faith is more theory than praxis. This film concentrates on asking the same question over and over again tested in a series of torture scenes. We are back to Scorsese’s student film.
Scorsese has wanted to adapt Shûsaku Endo’s novel, (I have not read it) for more than 25 years, granting Silence the unique distinction of being the director’s most delayed work. He has reverence for the material, never preaches, isn’t patronising or pompous, but far too often deathly overly-respectful, occasionally ponderous, treating the subject matter with all the seriousness of a devout Catholic hooked on the Latin Mass, rather than exercising the inquisitive, sceptical attitude of the intellectual.
As I watched each scene unfold I thought of priests down the ages who molested children, and the cardinals who protected them. Then I remembered priests who died at the hands of a state assassin protecting the rights and freedoms of their parishioners such as those martyrs in Latin American countries. The people who instructed their deaths would also call themselves Christians.
As the Jesuit priest Rodrigues christens an impoverished couple’s baby, the mother asks if her baby is now in “paradise.” No, no, he corrects her, with a smile denoting her theological naiveté. Paradise is the reward that God is preparing for the faithful in the afterlife. So, it’s rather like capitalism for the masses. Work hard for little, get rewarded by a promise nobody guarantees can be kept. And what if they arrive at the Pearly Gates only to see Buddha laughing at them?
Personally, if Eternity exists I can’t think what I’d do with all that time on my hands.
As you’d expect with this subject and the topography of Japan, the photography is quite seductive, thanks to the skills of Mexican, Rodrigo Prieto, whom Scorsese used on The Wolf of Wall Street, and is remembered for Brokeback Mountain. When my concentration wandered I filled the time enjoying the Japanese domestic architecture and garden design.
Silence is contemplative, restrained, austere, even ascetic. The film is philosophically prickly and brutally violent, though there’s nothing gratuitous about it. But it does take far too long to reach no great conclusion. I wonder if Scorsese’s long-time collaborator, editor Thelma Shoonmaker, was on holiday. Some judicious pruning wouldn’t weaken the work.
As for the crew worker on the set who was killed when a badly constructed building collapsed on him, do we say it was God’s will because he is omnipotent, or a man-made tragic accident because we are only human? If the former, the Christian God isn’t a man I’d want to know.
- Star rating: Three stars
- Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issey Ogata
- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
- Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
- Composer: Kathryn Kluge
- Duration: 2 hours 41 minutes