Silence is a film whose power lies not in the answers it gives but rather in the questions it provokes. It is a long, tortuous, and sometimes gruelling mediation on the dilemmas which have faced humankind for centuries: how can God exist alongside the presence of such evil? Why does God will that some must suffer more than others? Why does He maintain such silence in the response to our prayers?
It is a testament to Scorsese’s skill as a filmmaker that these questions are still made to feel relevant for the viewer in the 21st century. The story follows two 17th century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel from their native Portugal to Japan in order to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary who has renounced the faith and is allegedly living in apostasy with a Japanese wife and child. When they reach Japan they are greeted by an intense and highly charged atmosphere; Christianity has been savagely repressed by the Japanese authorities, yet there remains pockets of devout believers who continue to practice their religion in the utmost secret.
Rodrigues and Garupe are soon confronted by the stark intensity of the suffering that the Japanese Christians must endure. What’s more, their own presence in Japan appears to increase the scale of this persecution. After hearing of the Missionaries, the Japanese authorities visit the village and hoist three villagers up onto wooden crosses by the sea, letting the rising tide slowly drown them. Later on, whilst imprisoned near Nagasaki, Rodrigues witnesses the shocking beheading of a Japanese man who refuses to apostatise. In the face of such misery, Rodrigues begins to question the wisdom of his mission to Japan, the intentions of a God who bears silent witness to such suffering, and even the usefulness of his prayers to alleviate it.
One of the strengths of this film is that it neither glorifies the Missionaries, nor presents them as callous spiritual-imperialists indifferent to the customs of the Japanese people. One is initially weary of Andrew Garfield, who with his long flowing locks and grizzly beard looks suspiciously like the classic white-messiah-hero-redeemer travelling to a exotic land. Yet as the film unfolds we instead find an introspective, intensely devout man, aware of the seriousness of his task but also sensitive to its moral complexities.
A tremulous sense of yearning for something higher than ourselves runs through the entirety of the film…
By not providing the audience with easy answers the film invites thought and reflection. Even Rodrigo Prieto’s camera-work has a pensive feel about it; torture scenes of intense violence are shot at a respectful distance, and Prieto rarely uses dynamic camera-movement in order to sweep the viewer up into the heart of the action. We are instead left to ponder it from afar, separate enough to be alone with our thoughts, to mediate on the moral implications of the suffering depicted, and despair at our own impotence to doing anything about it.
Alongside Garfield, stand-out performances are also given by Yôsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, the lecherous, Judas-like figure whose faith is repeatedly compromised by temptation and weakness. Issey Ogata, who plays the Inquisitor, has a magnetic presence on screen, particularly during one scene when he deploys all of his wry, ironic humour against Rodrigues by comparing Christianity to an ‘ugly women’ during a debate about its suitability for Japan.
This is a film about religion and the questions that arise from it. Yet it carries a resonance that is far more secular. A tremulous sense of yearning for something higher than ourselves runs through the entirety of the film, giving it both its purpose and vitality. Hemmed in by a world filled with suffering and wretchedness, the characters grope around in darkness of God’s silence, searching to find that which transcends. The power of the film lies in its ability to immerse the viewer in this quest, drawing us towards it and raising the stakes for the audience so that we too participate in the search for the sublime.
Scorsese, however, does not provide us with a satisfactory resolution to this spiritual journey. How could he? Silence provides no answers, but this makes it no less a film; its magic instead lies in its ability to ask time-worn questions in a fresh, poetic and heart-wrenching way.
By Sam Collings-Wells
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