Martin Scorsese has wanted to tell this story for more than 25 years.
Silence begins with two 17th century Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) learning that their mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), was captured by authorities while on mission to Japan and publicly renounced Christ. The film takes place during Kakure Kirishitan — “hidden Christians” — a period of Japanese history in which Catholicism was outlawed after a violent revolt of primarily Christian peasants in the 1630s. Presuming Ferreira was and still is under duress, Rodrigues and Garupe demand to go to Japan and search for him.
Eventually, they are separated, and Rodrigues is captured and taken before inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), who forces him to watch Japanese Christians tortured until he, too, renounces the faith.
Silence is famously a passion project for writer/director/producer Martin Scorsese, a fact that defines both what I want the film to be and what it is. Any conversation about Scorsese inevitably turns to upbeat, gore-filled crime dramas like Goodfellas and The Departed, his most recognizeable works but not nearly representative of his now 24-film career.
Silence is pretty much the opposite of those movies. The film is a three-hour historical epic/torture porn. It’s slow, it’s sad and there’s no Rolling Stones music. No one deserves to be pigeonholed into making a certain type of film, especially not movie royalty like Scorsese, but seeing him make something so minimal can’t not be a bit of a letdown. Still, he puts his stamp on the film with intermittent editing flourishes and masterful photography
Silence is a technically spectacular film. Its visuals are as tightly composed as they are broad and sweeping, a high accomplishment even when using specialized wide lenses, which this film didn’t. It’s very well-colored — Scorsese’s reputation for meticulous post-production work probably helped quite a bit here. Despite a Lord of the Rings-level 161 minute runtime, there isn’t any fat to trim. Every scene is memorable and a necessary step on Rodrigues’ character arc. The end runtime comes simply from giving all these scenes as much space as they need to come together.
What Silence does better than anything is draw viewers into its world. Japan adhered to a strict caste system in the Edo Period with low social mobility. Most of the population lived in deep poverty with no way of rising out of it. The idea of an afterlife in which God prepares an equal place for everyone, not just the ruling class, represents the only way these people’s lives are going to get better.
But they must fight to hold on to even that hope after Japan outlawed the religion and drove most missionaries out of the country, torturing all who remained to death. Peasants suspected of Christianity are forced to stomp on Jesus’ image and spit on crusafixes. Rodrigues and Garupe arrive to a town full of people who have nothing if not their faith but haven’t been able to take sacrament in years and desperate to have confession and see their children baptized.
Structurally, Silence is a character study of Rodrigues, and it hinges on Garfield’s exuberant, physical performance. The film represents a major milestone for the former Spider-man, even if his far inferior turn in Hacksaw Ridge gets more attention.
He’s aided by inhabiting an engrossing character to study. As the film goes on, Rodrigues is consumed by arrogance, seeing himself as more and more Christ-like, but at the same time only extending the suffering of his fellow Catholics. At one point, he makes special mention that the 300 silver price on his head is three times what Judas got for ratting on Christ himself, and he regularly quotes the prophet unironically. Just before he is taken, he literally sees the face of Jesus reflected as his own in the surface of a river.
This is where Silence starts to lose track of itself a bit. The end of Rodrigues’ and Ferreira’s character arcs are deeply unsatisfying. Rodrigues’ in particular undermines the journey that came before and trivializes many of his harder choices.
There’s also a question of Scorsese’s personal convictions. Having a deeply Christian man telling a story of true Christian persecution in an era of problematic Christian persecution complexes is a socio-political minefield, and there was a worry here that he would over-editorialize the tale.
There’s no clear-cut example of this, but one historical inaccuracy stands out. Japanese authorities are constantly comparing Christianity to Buddhism, when Neo-Confucianism and Japan’s native tradition, Shintoism, were the powerful religions in this time period.
Another issue that kind of undermines Silence is its language. The people in question would be speaking Portuguese and Japanese, but English is subbed in as the primary European language. It’s obviously a more prominent language — the sun never sets on the empire and all that — but difficult language barriers are an important part of the movie, and they’re clearly willing to use subtitles for Japanese. It’s a catch-22 — most viewers who only speak English wouldn’t understand that aspect of what’s going on, but language is culture, and friction between Japanese and Portuguese is different than friction between Japanese and English.
I guess it’s just weird to hear people, in English, refer to themselves as currently speaking Portuguese.
Silence appears on several critics’ top 10 lists for 2016, but the early year-end awards shows have mostly ignored it. After finally expanding this weekend, it looks to finish outside the top 10 and become Scorsese’s first flop since 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead. It’s a sad fate for a fantastically made film, but most involved will probably just be happy that it got made.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.