I have to admire Martin Scorsese's persistence in pursuing this project for decades and managing to turn the external and internal trek into a personal journey. The first Scorsese films I saw were BOXCAR BERTHA (1972) and MEAN STREETS (1973), both of which conclude with a literal and figurative crucifixion of the male lead. Scorsese, who considered being a Catholic priest before becoming an acclaimed film director, has told his own story over and over in his films, no matter the original material or who adapted it. His topics are Cinema and Faith. He's a living encyclopedia of film and an individual who clothes his Art in spiritual questioning and doubt. One thinks of the Harvey Keitel character in the Catholic church at the opening of MEAN STREETS, talking to the God he doubts about his own failings, his sins.
SILENCE, in a way, explores the same journey and doubts in an epic adaptation of the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel. The book was first filmed by a Japanese company in 1971, but this is a Scorsese film through and through. Nature, the rocky, remote, primeval landscapes of Japan have an inhuman quality and become an awesome stage for an extended debate between Christianity and traditional Buddhism. It expands into a running dialogue between Japanese Christians and Buddhists and the two Jesuit missionaries who have lobbied superiors to go there to find their colleague, a fallen missionary (Liam Neeson), an apostasized priest who has rejected Jesus Christ rather than be tortured and killed by local Buddhist authorities who have outlawed Christianity on pain of death. The film opens on the misty ocean shores of a remote area where several priests are tied to crosses and tortured by the freezing surf which slowly rises to drown them. The missionary's grief and internal struggle to retain faith are apparent as he watches the martyrdom of his associates, which later transforms into a guarded calm when he has to return in the third act to convince his captured colleagues to reject their own faith to save themselves and others. This opening scene, along with some of the more bloody tortures and executions reminded me of the aesthetically extravagant representation of the physical pain of detailed tortures, gore and Inquisition of the Japanese director Teruo Ishii in INFERNO OF TORTURE(1969) and BOHACHI BUSHIDO (1973). The violent, elemental historical epics of Akira Kurosawa also come to mind, particularly RAN, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS and RASHOMON
Hiding in the local caverns and being put up by clandestine sects, the Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) keep their faith as the Japanese Christians endure torture and death to protect them. Two Japanese characters represent the "other" which is the Japanese cultural imperative. A wretched betrayer, a Judas who turns priests in so he can go on surviving, and the domain's Inquisitor, a serene elder who doesn't want to kill the priests as much as have them publicly renounce Jesus Christ. He makes the point, along with a friendly interpreter, that Buddhism is founded on the worship of Nature as an instinctive, reliable force which is represented by the rising of the Sun everyday, the faith in the world as it is. Pride and the need to convert are the faults of Christians in their eyes, a threat which must be eliminated. Scorsese films these dialogues and clashes from a distance, rather than a reliance of giant close-ups, taking into account the surrounding environment and giving space a transcendent quality. The viewer is allowed to consider both sides, but there is no question that the film is on the side of Christian faith as something which will endure beyond appearances and the death of the characters, as the last indelible image confirms. The title refers to the silence of God in the realm of the world as we know it, and the possible meanings and implications of that silence.
As a 40 million dollar exercise in faith, a meditation on spiritual endurance in the face of overwhelming physical and emotional pain, SILENCE, which opens in an eerie silence which is suddenly broken by the cacophony of Nature, a word which I must again capitalize in this context, is an admirable venture, a personal artwork which takes its time and doesn't curry any kind of favor or easy understanding. This is a monumental study in human ambiguity, we are never really sure, for instance, if Liam Neeson's priest has abandoned Christianity in his heart or if he has done it to appease his tormentors and survive. The surviving Jesuit who confronts him also undergoes an equally ambiguous transformation. The cast is uniformly excellent, but Andrew Garfield's endlessly challenged Jesuit, Yosuke Kubozuka's Judas, Issey Ogato's wise Inquisitor and Tadanobu Asano's persistent interpreter are characters you take out of the theater with you. The misty, craggy landscapes have a severe beauty which illustrates the internal struggles of the characters and are framed with subtle artistry throughout.
SILENCE is a long, deliberately paced film which asks the viewer to set aside expectations and a few hours to enter a cruel, alien, disorienting place and time. As a lapsed believer and survivor of Catholic elementary, secondary and university level education by Dominicans and Jesuits, perhaps I was more willing to allow myself to be drawn into this quiet tempest. For myself, it was a journey well worth taking.
(C) Robert Monell