Faith is a difficult concept to explain to non-believers. I was never raised religiously, or even with any sort of a belief in a god. As such, I generally struggle to connect to stories of faith and to characters who so strongly experience faith, and it takes something special to make me truly understand what these people are going through. But Martin Scorsese, with his latest film Silence, has managed to do just that. Himself a lapsed Catholic, he may just be in the best position to convey the intricacies of faith.
Silence is the story of two Portuguese Christian missionaries in Japan in the 17th century, a time when Christianity was forbidden and severely persecuted. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Christian author, which in turn is based on a real set of historical events. The two missionaries, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), travel to Japan in pursuit of another priest by the name of Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who had gone to Japan many years earlier and of whom all traces had been lost. Over the course of the film, the priests hide in small Japanese villages and attempt, unsuccessfully, to evade the authorities who are determined to make the priests apostatise, to renounce their religion, and who aim to stamp out the roots of Christianity in Japan. The more the priests persist in their attempts to find Ferreira and to hold on to their dogma, the more ruthless the Japanese officials become, not just towards them but also towards the villagers who hide them.
For the most part, the narrative is centred on Rodrigues, and the themes of wavering faith, the silence of god and the point of missionary work in general, are all explored through him. Rodrigues is so deeply embedded in his religious system and indoctrinated role as a missionary that he fails to realise that true faith is in one’s heart, not one’s church. There’s a moment in the middle of the film where Rodrigues hands out religious artefacts to the church-starved locals and observes that these people seem more obsessed with the symbolism of religion than religion itself. It’s a thought that Rodrigues himself does not seem to fully grasp in relation to the manifestations of his own faith: repeatedly, the officials try to make him renounce his faith by placing his foot on an image of Christ, and repeatedly he refuses, as indeed do the persecuted villagers. He too, then, like the villagers, is more interested with preserving his status as an emissary of the church and of god than of accepting true belief, and as a result cannot bring himself to reject a physical symbol. To add to his inner turmoil and the difficulty he faces, the longer he takes to reject his status as a priest in front of authorities, the more the Japanese civilians are tormented and tortured. Even the officials continually state that the act of apostasy is a pure formality, that they would be satisfied with the simple gesture of stamping on the engraving, and even though this statement comes from a place of heartless bureaucracy, it nevertheless encapsulates the very lesson that Rodrigues is destined to learn.
Most of these narrative twists, thematic ideas and religious dilemmas come, of course, from Endo’s original novel, not from Scorsese or his co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, so I can’t pretend that they’re specific to this film. Having said that, the novel doesn’t really work for me. It seems to presume a basic personal understanding of the problems faced by people of faith and in doing so alienates someone like me who does not necessarily appreciate the faithful mindset. Endo almost relies on the (albeit intriguing) philosophical and ethical questions to be the start and endpoint of the narrative and as a result the narrative itself falls flat. There was even another adaptation of the novel filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shindo, co-written by Endo himself, and even that felt very unengaging, though technically well-made. Scorsese’s adaptation, however, succeeds in constructing a deeply personal and affecting portrayal of the young priest and took me on a journey alongside him, allowing me to empathise with the weight of his doubts. Ironically, it seems that he has achieved this by toning down the first-person perspective in comparison to the original, though we do get a voiceover in several sections of the film, and consequently the film becomes more subtle and more balanced as a depiction. On top of this, Scorsese pays a great deal more attention to the Japanese villagers and their suffering, the very suffering that is at the core of the moral quandary facing Rodrigues. It all makes for very engrossing and moving viewing. In other words, while Scorsese hasn’t come up with the seeds of the story and themes, it’s the way he expresses them that is significant here.
On a technical level, too, Silence is astoundingly well-put-together. The majority of the film is shot with striking cold, foggy tones, echoing the harshness of the political environment which the priests are thrust into. Yet there are several notable moments that seem surprisingly warmly-coloured, made even more notable by the overall coldness of the film. These warm moments predominantly seem to have some connection to faith, such as a night-time prayer session in a tiny hut. It’s almost as if to emphasise the extent of the meaning people derive from their faith and the intimacy of their beliefs. I should note that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has been nominated for an Academy Award for Silence, and it’s very much well-earned. Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, too, continues her masterful work, as does legendary set and art designer Dante Ferretti. The period detail is meticulous, even in scenes we barely see. And even though superficially this film mightn’t appear to shout “Scorsese”, there’s enough of his familiar camera movements to divulge his directorial presence. Several startling zooms and pans, particularly in the prison sequences, still stick in my mind and are well and truly characteristic of Scorsese’s work. Not to mention the stark and brutal imagery that has become synonymous with his reputation.
Excellent, fascinating and absorbing, a story about faith that even non-religious people like me can get into. All that’s left to say, I suppose, is that Martin Scorsese’s Silence is golden.
Silence is out in cinemas on February 16th.
Written by Ben Volchok