Director Martin Scorsese has always been torn between the scared and the profane. His greatest work has always grappled with sin and redemption, populated by characters like “God’s lonely man,” truth seeker and psychopath Travis Bickle.
Over forty years ago he did a voice over in “Mean Streets” that could inserted (with certain modifications) into his latest film, a seventeenth century epic based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel “Silence.”
“You don’t make up for your sins in church,” he says. “You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bull**** and you know it.”
In this case “the streets” are a foreign land, but the spiritual journey is not that different.
“Silence” begins in 1633 with the disappearance of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit priest who has gone missing while on mission in Japan.
Christianity is an outlawed religion and those who hide Christians are tortured and killed. Two young priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), acolytes of Ferreira, convince Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to allow them to travel to Japan to locate their mentor. “How can we abandon our mission?” asks Rodrigues. “How do we neglect the man who shaped our faith? We have no choice but to save his soul.”
The year is 1640 and they are the last two priests to go to Japan. “An army of two,” says Valignano. An arduous journey leads them to a country more dangerous and complicated than they anticipated. Christians are desperate for their word but live in fear. Officials insist, “Your doctrine is of no use in Japan. We have concluded it is a danger.” If caught by colonels of the country’s inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata) Christians are first asked to committed apostasy—step on an image of Jesus Christ—to denounce their faith or be killed.
As the bodies pile up around them on heir search the question must be asked, are they helping or are they foreigners who bring disaster with them? “Think of the suffering you have inflicted on these people,” says Masashige, the cheery faced inquisitor with a squeaky voice, “just for your vision of a church.” If the priests die the Japanese church dies with them but will the suffering of their people be enough to compel them to make the painful act of love ever performed, apostasy?
“Silence” is a meditative movie about the strength of faith and the limits to which it can be stretched. It is a physical and sacred journey à la “Heart of Darkness.” A look into obsession, colonialism and martyrdom, it is a deliberately paced—i.e: a slow, almost glacial tempo—film unafraid to submerge the viewer in the suffering of its characters. Make no mistake, this is no “Passion of the Christ” with its love of violence and blood. This is a 160 movie that examines the intersection of agony and ecstasy, but does so as an exercise of the mind. There are uncomfortable images, but Scorsese plays it straight, presenting the instances of torture as expressions of the power of belief not merely physical agonies. The movie may start with a beautifully composed shot of the dismembered heads of two priests but the violence here isn’t glamourized, it is organic to the story and even more chilling as a result.
Also, anyone expecting the usual Scorsese stylistic flourishes may be disappointed. There are no Rolling Stones songs or slow motion. There are a few overhead shots but nothing as showy as the long, uninterrupted tracking shot in “Goodfellas.” Instead it’s a classically made film with some serious Kurosawa mojo.
As the Jesuits Garfield and Driver convey divine confidence and yet, as their faith is tested and doubt seeps in, they play their characters as priests battling to do the right thing in the face of suffering and insurmountable odds. Both must make the choice between their beliefs and the stark reality of the consequences of their belief. Both bring humanity to characters who could have been simply portals for some kind of celestial message.
Most memorable is Issey Ogata as the grinning inquisitor Inoue Masashige. The very definition of the ordinariness of evil, he is a cruel man with a smile on his face and a scar on his heart. Think “Inglorious Basterds’s” Hans Landa with the faux gentility of Auric Goldfinger and you get the idea.
“Silence” is a rarity, a big, epic film that values introspection. It’s a companion piece to Scorsese’s other religious offerings—“The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun”—but a more complicated film than either of those. It is about faith but more importantly, also about the distinction between religion and spirituality and Scorsese does not back away from diving into those murky theological waters.