AS AN ATHEIST who was raised as a practising Catholic, Martin Scorsese’s Silence strikes two very raw nerves with me as a film that examines both the best and worst aspects of religious faith and vocation. Adapted from Shusaka Endo’s eponymous novel, the film follows two Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), in their mission to Japan’s ‘Kakure Kirishtan’ (hidden Christians) during the period of their fiercest suppression following the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. By undertaking this mission, they hope to discover the fate of their mentor, Father Farreira (Liam Neeson) the last Jesuit missionary thought to have remained in Japan after the Christian suppression.
Silence has been a 25 year passion project for Scorsese, kept in private development for half of his filmmaking career. While it’s too often the case that films left stewing in development hell for anywhere near that length of time ultimately prove a muddled mess of the original concept – or simply weren’t worth making in the first place [cough, Boyhood, cough] – Silence bears all the hallmarks of a film the creator has been moulding in his mind until it was something fully-fired, truly personal and frequently shocking.
Silence is not exactly what you could call ‘an enjoyable film’. It’s dark and challenging, as befits a film dealing with the nature of martyrdom and apostasy. If 12 Years a Slave was a harrowing depiction of how slavery could break down one’s own sense of humanity and self, Silence is a similarly chilling depiction of how a man’s spiritual faith can be pushed past its breaking point. Whilst Solomon Northup never lost hope that he would escape the cage a vile system had connived to place him in, Rodrigues is in a prison which, tormentingly, is in many senses one of his own devising.
From the outset, there is a serene yet eerie stillness to Silence’s Japan, beautifully captured by Rodrigo Prieto. From the mist-laden, archaic villages of the peasants, we break into the lush and verdant beauty of the Japanese coast and forest. The score is used incredibly sparingly throughout, with a few strings occasionally breaking through the ambience of whistling wind and buzzing crickets.
Despite the harmonious accord, the country constantly bristles with threat and there is always the looming dread of discovery and what that would mean; not only for our protagonists, but also for the peasants who shelter them. The threat is that much more persistent because of the culture clash and the initially alien intentions of the Kakure Kirishtan’s persecutors. All we can gather of the Province’s Christian hunters, at first, is that they have spies everywhere, and that to be apprehended as a Christian means a long and horrible death.
One of the aspects of Silence that really strikes home is its engagement with the Christian peasants, and what it means to be a violently suppressed underclass in a cruel and systematically brutal society. The priests may be the font of Christian instruction for the peasants, the ‘army of two’ for Christ, but more often than not it is the peasants who pay the price for their faith; a truth the film relentlessly acknowledges. While both Garfield and Driver give excellent performances, it is the Japanese cast who engage with the material in the most surprising and personal fashion.
Perhaps this is unsurprising given the uniquely Japanese context. Not since Seven Samurai has there been a film with a wide Western release that has dealt so directly with what it meant to be a common man in Feudal Japan. Until the late 19th Century, for instance, it remained perfectly legal (and in bushido terms, completely ethical) for a samurai to strike and maim a peasant with his sword if he felt insulted by him (Kiri-sute). For the Kakure Kirishtan especially, life was a constant hardship under a government determined to eradicate them, and it is to the film’s credit that Silence does not shy away from the brutal reality of naked persecution.
The cruel irony of the hidden Christians’ situation is that the persecution only fuels their desperate need for faith, and the condemned symbols of that faith, in a truly vicious cycle. Matyrdom is the fertiliser from which Christianity has historically spread, dating back as far as the Roman persecutions. This is true for the Kakure Kirishtan even though they comprehend their faith in a manner that often seems alien to the Jesuits, taking far greater comfort in the symbols and sacraments of faith than in actual catechesis.
The issue of faith-in-translation is apparent throughout, and often the question arises if the hidden Christians even think they are suffering dying for the same actual God as the Jesuits, or something else entirely. Nevertheless, the quiet and forceful faith of the Kakure Kirishtan is genuinely heart-breaking, elevating them to just as prominent a place in the film as the Western protagonists. All of the supporting cast do fantastic work, but Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kobuzuka) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oida) stand out for the dignified vitality they imbue as the village’s elders.
Though it makes for a horribly riveting account of a now widely-forgotten persecution, what is most impressive about Silence is its capacity to confront the troubling and ugly aspects of faith itself, especially in those who seek to propagate their faith. Garfield does an exceptional job as Rodrigues, the young idealist Jesuit who believes himself blessed by visions of Christ, imbuing the character with a feverish conviction and inner turmoil; the parallels with Conrad and Marlow here are abundant.
Early in the film, Rodrigues seizes upon the idea of the Kakure Kirishtan and himself as a kind of new generation of the first martyrs of Rome. Gradually however, as more and more of the hidden Christians die, the audience, no matter how confident in their own faith, must ask, as Rodrigues asks, how much suffering is enough for a God who offers only silence in return? When the principles of martyrdom become more a point of pride and obstinacy than they do Christian teaching, at what point would Christ himself have broken with his commandments?
Given the stark level of human cruelty portrayed throughout the film, Silence could have easily proven a rather one-sided portrayal of Edo Japan and its brutality towards Christianity, but the film never falls into this trap. Whilst we never lose sight of the suffering of the Kakure Kirishtan, the film does not restrict us to a black and white view of history and even manages to engage us with the perspective of the governor who brutalises the hidden Christians of Nagasaki province: the Shogun’s chief inquisitor, Inoue (a rivetingly nuanced performance from Issey Ogata).
From Inoue’s perspective, the hidden Christians themselves, as humble peasants, were never actually a threat, only the infection which must be cut away to preserve the whole. The Jesuits, and the foreign influence of their Church, are the real concern. Inoue holds no malice towards the Christians, and has no personal interest in making martyrs, but is prepared to slaughter untold thousands of peasants in order to quell and prevent the foreign dissent he believes the Church to represent; all for the greater good.
It can seem like the obvious answer is simply for the hidden Christians to be prepared to sacrifice a little of their pride in their faith so that they might continue to live as Christians, rather than die as martyrs. But not all of Silence’s Kakure Kirishtan are without apparent guile. With the mercurial, Judas-like figure of Mokichi (played with a magnetic bestial intensity by Shinya Tsukamoto), we see what it would mean for a Christian to constantly buckle under the demands of his faith, seemingly degrading it – and himself – utterly.
Yet, for some untenable reason, Mokichi seems always unable to cast his faith forever aside. The character raises the question of Christian absolution, and which Christian is ultimately most true to his faith and teaching: the one who bends constantly but always seeks repentance, or the one who finally breaks completely?
That is perhaps the greatest asset of films like Silence: their ability to be read in a multitude of ways, offering dozens of interpretations but defying any one, simple, explanation. I won’t say much about Liam Neeson’s turn as Father Ferreira other than to say he furnishes the character with a haunted quality I did not know he was capable of, and in some regards he out-Kurtzs Brando.
Silence really is a film which should be experienced first-hand without too many presuppositions, so I’m reluctant to delve any further into the plot, but suffice to say there have been few films which have dealt so candidly with the place of faith in a society and within man himself. It’s not an easy watch, but for my money Silence may well have been the most complete and surpassing film of 2016. A truly unique film that’ll challenge the theist and atheist alike.