Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata
Runtime: 161 minutes
Release Date: January 1st
A key tenet of poststructuralist theory is the idea of absence as presence, that the lack of something in a text can be as meaningful as what is presented there in abundance. This idea is suggested right in the title of Martin Scorsese’s new film (based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel) as one of its key themes: Silence, a lack of sound, functioning as both the loudest, boldest sign of God’s indifference, or alternatively, a powerful, private and subversive way of worship within a noisy, visibly oppressive regime.
In the 17th century, two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver) travel to Japan in search of their mentor Father Ferreira (Neeson), rumoured to have apostatised, or renounced his faith, within a society actively persecuting and assimilating Christians. En route, the faith of each man is severely tested by the physical and psychological torture endured by the secret faithful in the country, particularly once Rodrigues is captured by the military forces, led by Inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Ogata).
Silence is a tale of endurance, of how long one can stand what is – and what is not – happening around him. With its long takes, slow pans, and 161-minute runtime (down from a once-rumoured 195 minutes) Scorsese impresses this tangibly on the audience, which can be frustrating. While never overly explicit, the torture scenes are punishing and uncomfortable, (if beautifully shot) calling to mind that the word ‘martyr’ is derived from the Greek for ‘witness’. As the film shifts to more directly position Father Rodrigues as the lead, we see him struggle to reconcile his personal beliefs and desire to honour God, in theory, with the practical reality that others will pay if he does not apostatise. ‘The price for your glory is their suffering,’ Rodrigues is told soon after he is apprehended, and it is only in the third act of the film that this idea of glory in faith, and martyrdom for a silent and possibly absent God, is quietly, sadly redefined by Rodrigues – if rather rapidly wrapped-up by the film. Not that Silence needs to be any longer, but the introduction of a voiceover and an origin story montage following its climax does feel as though they’re dragging the dog home somewhat.
Garfield’s performance is wonderfully delicate; capturing a youthful naivete and conviction before we see him break down utterly when the price of faith is the lives of others. His co-star Driver is strong too, if on-screen all too briefly. Also noteworthy is a wonderfully physical turn from Issey Ogata as the lead Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, which elevates what seems on paper a somewhat problematic adversary in terms of race and, potentially, sexual orientation (the real-life Masashige was gay). His verbal sparring with Rodrigues about his idea that the Japanese character is innately incompatible with Christianity is believably narrow-sighted. Neeson is solid as always at playing an experienced-yet-endangered authority figure, but relishes cutting Garfield down to size in their first on-screen meeting. Dimly-lit and quietly manic, it evokes Apocalypse Now and just as vitally marks a dramatic turning point in the film, executed not in flames, but in silence.
While less immediately thrilling than his more recent fare, but containing similar third-act issues, Silence is still provocative filmmaking from Scorsese, a complex and powerful meditation on faith, worship, and suffering. Whether it actually has any spiritual resonance for you, or not, is between you and your God.