Review – Silence (2016)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson


Martin Scorsese has, in the last decade or so, enjoyed the most commercially successful period of his career, with The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street all making an impact at the box office. In contrast, his newest film, Silence, is his most unashamedly uncommercial film in decades. This adaptation is, however, a project that the great director has been trying to realise since he first read Shusaku Endo’s novel in 1989. It is the textbook definition of a passion project, and the resulting film is a breathtaking and thought provoking crystalisation of some of the key themes that have persisted through Scorsese’s life and work.

Silence takes us into the world of the Kakure Kirishitan, the ‘hidden Christians,’ of Imperial Japan. In 1640, two young Jesuit priests from Portugal, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) head to Japan in search of their old mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They have heard rumours that he has apostatised, renounced his faith, and is living as a Japanese, rumours they simply cannot believe. Living in secret with the Christian minority in the villages around Nagasaki, Rodrigues and Garupe discover the terrifying extent to which the Christians are persecuted. Having been tolerated for a period of time, Christianity has now been outlawed. Believers are forced to apostatise by symbolically treading on an image of Christ or face torture and execution. We see the Christians being martyred by burning, boiling water torture, crucified in the rising tide, or hung upside down to bleed out. These scenes are hard to watch with Scorsese making the torture visceral enough to be harrowing without venturing into the almost pornographic excesses of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

When the prospect of martyrdom for their faith did not seem an adequate deterrent the inquisition changed its approach, torturing and executing believers until their priests apostatised. With the believers looking to him for guidance Rodrigues faces a dilemma of faith. What is the Godly thing to do? To stand firm for your faith even if it means someone else pays the price, or to publicly renounce God to protect his people? Through all of this horror, Rodrigues is haunted by the silence of God. Is it God’s absence? His consent? How can he account for God’s deafening silence?

Co-written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, who previously teamed up for Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence, Silence is structurally reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The protagonist’s journey deeper into the country in search of a mysterious figure is paralleled by a challenging journey deeper into himself. Arriving in the country young and idealistic, with a fierce but simple belief, Rodrigues finds his faith and doctrine constantly tested. He finds himself simultaneously inspired by the resilience of these believers whose faith has been a constant source of threat, and confronted by the seeming futility of their martyrdom. As one of the last ordained priests in the region, and therefore the only person entitled to hear confession and offer absolution, the community seeks to shelter and protect him, making him simultaneously a source of great encouragement and an added danger. In a land and a situation unlike any he has known, what it is that God would have him do is more unclear than ever before.

Through interviews one gets the impression that Scorsese understands and interprets the world through two lenses: cinema and Catholicism. Occasionally, those two overlap. The way that themes of faith have been negotiated in Scorsese’s body of work has always been fascinating. From Mean Streets to the controversial Last Temptation of Christ to Kundun, his film about the Dalai Lama, and now Silence, Scorsese’s films evidence a very personal wrestling with notions of faith, doubt, temptation, guilt, fallibility and penance. It is the exploration of a faith that is fundamental but not straightforward, one built on questions rather than certainty.


Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) looks on as Japanese Christians are martyred.

While at a thematic level Silence is very much in Scorsese’s wheelhouse, there are other ways in which it is atypical of his work. Throughout his career Scorsese has been almost exclusively an urban storyteller, but Silence brings him closer to nature, embracing the rural. Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who received an Oscar nomination, the film captures the beauty of the misty landscapes of the setting (Taiwan standing in for Japan), employing simple, classical shot compositions that lack the visual flourishes usually associated with the director.

With Silence coming on the heels of Hacksaw Ridge, it has been a big six months for films in which Andrew Garfield’s faith is tested. He delivers a solid performance here, carrying much of the load of the film, but does lack the presence of some of Scorsese’s previous leading men. Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis, Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel are hard acts to follow. But while Garfield, Driver and Neeson all give fine performances, it is the Japanese cast that really shines. Yosuke Kubozuka is fantastic as the lowly Kichijiro. We first meet him as a drunk who agrees to be the two priests, and watch him struggle with his faith, seemingly apostatising and running away at every opportunity only to return to Rodrigues seeking of forgiveness. However, while at times he is cast almost as comic relief, his character journey ends up being one of the most fascinating of the film. His fallibility and immediate regret goes from being comedic to devastatingly human. Veteran Japanese actor Issei Ogata is the film’s true scene stealer. He makes the Inquisitor something of an Imperial Japanese version of Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa. Inquisitor Inoue is a quirky, almost camp character, with Ogata adopting a performance style that is strikingly different from those around him, one not based in naturalism, giving him a fascinating screen presence.

It is through these conversations with the Inquisitor, and later with Ferreira, that the film touches on the elephant in the room: colonialism. While Silence positions us to be on the side of Rodrigues, and we understand his motives as being righteous, it is none the less a story about a foreign power trying to impose its values and its truth in place of those of the locals. In these conversations Rodrigues is told of the incompatibility of the two world views, and is made to question for what faith these converts are dying, faith in their God or in their priests? The film never seeks to condemn the inherent colonialism of Rodrigues, Garupe and Ferreira’s mission, but acknowledges that it is an issue with layers.

Silence is by no means a film for everyone. The contrast between it and Scorsese’s last film, the crowd pleasing The Wolf of Wall Street, could not be more stark. It is long and hard and challenging. A thought provoking meditation on faith and doubt, it is the work of a master filmmaker who clearly has loftier ambitions than simply making a good film.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Silence? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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