Silence, Martin Scorsese’s nearly three-hour-long adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel about two 17th century Jesuit priests suffering a crisis of faith while attempting to spread Christianity in Japan, is a tough sell. When I jokingly quoted Jerry Maguire in asking, “Who’s coming with me?” to my household prior to departing to see Silence this weekend I was greeted with, no pun intended, absolute silence. In that moment, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blow by.
Scorsese spent a quarter of a century trying to get this movie made, and with good reason. The money people simply didn’t love their chances of getting a solid return on investment with a movie about faith, spirituality and the nature of human existence. After all, Scorsese’s other two films about religion – 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Kundun – didn’t even clear $20 million domestic combined.
Truthfully, Silence only exists because Mexican producer Gaston Pavlovich (A Hologram for the King) eventually agreed to fully finance the budget, thought to be $50 million. Based on Silence’s very dim box office prospects, Pavlovich essentially flushed that $50m down the toilet, but he is the true patron saint of this movie, stepping in to allow Scorsese to create what is a very challenging, yet ultimately rewarding work of art.
The challenging part is most obviously the 161-minute length, which features multiple prolonged sequences and is in no way lessened by any levity or even an orchestral score. I laughed twice because there’s one joke in the whole film and one character whose repeated attempts to absolve his acts of betrayal through the sacrament of Confession borders on black comedy, and the only song I remember hearing is the one sung by a persecuted Christian as he rejoices about getting to go to paradise moments before dying.
However, beyond the length the true challenge lies in the subject matter and what the film asks of its viewer. As Josh Tarpley laid out in his review for KeithLovesMovies, Silence ponders multiple big “what does it all mean, man?” ideas:
Do our actions matter as long as we have the right beliefs?
Do we worship the idea of being “correct” at the expense of real human connection/experience?
Who are the “bad guys?” Those using their religion to torture others for believing differently? Or those bringing a foreign lifestyle to indigenous people, thus bringing torture and death to the innocent?
Moreover, as per the film’s title, how do the faithful cope with God’s persistent silence, a question, incidentally, currently being explored in a very different way on HBO’s The Young Pope. No mysterious kangaroos pop up in Silence, I can tell you that.
Posing these questions does not alone make Silence a work of art; it’s the way the film maturely and sympathetically explores these ideas through the journey of Andrew Garfield’s character that does that.
In the story, Portuguese Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield, in a career-best performance) and Garupe (Adam Driver, reliable but the clear co-star and not star of the show) travel to Japan to investigate the rumor that their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, who communicates so much with so few words) renounced his faith after being tortured during the Shimabara Rebellion.
Shimabara Rebellion? What’s that?
Brief history lesson: Christian peasants briefly rebelled against unfair taxation, but were crushed and forced into hiding as Japan began aggressively persecuting Christians (and would continue to do so for the next two centuries) and expelled all missionaries.
Rodrigues and Garupe are both told of the martyrdom which might await them in Japan, but they are eager to embrace such a fate if it is the result of them pursuing what God has seen fit to put into their hearts. If Ferreira is still alive they can assist him in administering to the area’s Christians and convert even more. The area once had tens of thousands of new converts, we are told. If he has indeed committed heresy it is their duty to attempt to save his soul.
Are they completely naïve? Arrogant? Is God’s will working through them, or are they simply two ambitious men blinded by the Earthly glory which would await them if they succeeded in bringing Christianity back to Japan?
If you find these questions too complex or perhaps uninteresting to ponder you can at least amuse yourself by monitoring the evolution of Rodrigues and Galupe’s respective hairstyles the longer they go without access to a barber. Garfield, in particular, gradually starts to resemble a Jedi or Jesus or both.
Upon arrival in outer Japan, they are greeted by the hiding Christians leading lives of painfully quiet desperation. We quickly sense Rodrigues and Galupe were ill-prepared for the degree of suffering and outpouring of emotion they’d encounter. Rodrigues, whose journal entries serve as the voice-over narration device for the majority of the film, essentially opines at one point [if you’ll allow me to paraphrase], “I know God wants some of us to suffer, but does the suffering always have to be so, I don’t know, bad?” Life is so miserable for these people that Christianity holds an appeal because it at least promises an after-life in paradise. Rodrigues goes back and forth between questioning this as well as his own faith in God before succumbing to the inevitable ego stroke of administering the faith to those who have been starved for religious figures for too long and thus treat priests like royalty.
Then, spoiler alert, all of the villagers are either killed or taken away by Japanese government officials enforcing Buddhism as the one religion of the land, and Rodrigues and Galupe separate (at which point Galupe stops really being a character in the movie) and flee for their lives while also grappling with survivor’s guilt.
This is when the film becomes something far more interesting than it had been, but it takes an hour to get there and over another hour for Garfield and Neeson to share the screen together, the arrogantly pious man quarreling with the pragmatic, broken one in a deeply fascinating scene. The length need not necessarily be an inherently bad thing, but there are several sequences which are arguably longer and/or more drawn out than they needed to be.
For example, Rodrigues is eventually captured and asked to renounce his faith, later learning that until he rejects Jesus and embraces Buddhism his fellow prisoners will continue to be tortured regardless of whether or not they themselves renounced their faith. In one sequence, he watches multiple prisoners refusing one-by-one to renounce by stepping on a stone tablet etching of Jesus. Scorsese films the entire thing in real time from Rodrigues’ point of view before abruptly cutting at the very end to skip over the second-to-last prisoner to reach the actual last one, drawing into question why we just had to watch the drawn out process (get up, dragged by guard to the tablet, ordered to step on tablet, refuse to step on tablet, taken by guard back to their seat, repeat process with next prisoner) multiple times if we could skip one of these characters we don’t even know to get to the one we kind of do.
To those who think the film a masterpiece I must seem beyond unenlightened right now (it’s crucial to see all of that in real time to enhance Rodrigues’ suffering and raise tension!), and to those who think it a merely good film in need of a more thorough edit I must seem sorely lacking in only highlighting this one scene and not the various others which could have been trimmed (what about all those prolonged, sledge-hammer symbolism shots of fog!). However, any film nerd arguments which might break out over Silence pale in comparison to the theological debate it will inspire, such as Crisis Magazine struggling to rectify the film’s ending with the letter of the law of Jesus’ teachings in The Bible.
Perhaps its the lapsed Catholic in me, but what interests more than the potential theological debate is the compelling journey Rodrigues takes in the story, which Garfield summarized perfectly in his recent Vulture interview:
Rodrigues is a man of deep faith and longing to serve … but there’s something else going on, which I think is evident in the book and the script that I read and, ultimately, the film: There’s a lot of ego there, a lot of ambition and personal glory that he’s after. I don’t think he’s all that aware of it when he first sets foot in this foreign territory of Japan, and I believe that is what is really, truly tested, this strong-willed and forceful ego. He had a very clear idea of what his life was supposed to look and feel like: He was going to be martyred, he was going to be sainted, he was going to have all the glory of one of the great men of the faith … but the thing that he was actually called to Japan for was to have his ego totally pulverized so that he could actually begin truly serving God and his fellow man in the most humble and sincere way.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s not exactly a commercial film nor one which you can simply sit down and watch any old time you want. You have to be in the mood for the deeply thoughtful exploration of faith and compelling character study that is Silence. However, it’s a journey worth taking, one of Scorsese’s finest and sure to inspire after-viewing debate.