SPOILER ALERT: In this review I will discuss key plot points of the film, including the ending. I encourage you to go and watch Silence before reading this review. I promise you, this film is worth your time.
At the outset of this review, I think it is important to note a Bible verse that came to my mind repeatedly while watching Silence, the 2016 film directed by Martin Scorsese. In the following verse, the apostle Paul is speaking of his love for his Jewish brothers and sisters.
The question at the core of this movie is this: would God prefer one to steadfastly give outward witness of their belief in Him even if it meant torture for others, or would He rather that person outwardly deny Him while holding to their inward beliefs if it meant that others would be spared?
For any Christian, this is a difficult question. To flippantly pass this off as an easy choice is careless, in my opinion. I have never faced such persecution in my life, so it would be wrong of me to pass judgment on those who have. What I think is more useful, is to attempt to put myself in their shoes - to consider how I might react in light of what Scripture and experience have revealed to me.
The fact that Silence is able to put us there is a testament to its greatness as a work of art. Scorsese famously had been considering working on this film for over two decades since he first read the book that is the movie's source material - Silence by Shusaku Endo.
The story takes place in the 17th century. Two Jesuit priests from Portugal - Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) - have been sent on a mission to retrieve their lost mentor - Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The film opens with a scene showing Japanese Christians being tortured as Father Ferreira is forced to watch in agony. We hear voiceover from Father Ferreira telling how some were happy to be tortured so that they could show the strength of their beliefs.
The text for the voiceover comes from a letter that Father Ferreira had sent back to his Jesuit counterparts. Rodrigues and Garupe listen as Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) reads the letter to them. It is the last known correspondance from Father Ferreira, and Father Valignano believes the priest to have apostatized - renounced his faith in God.
Rodrigues and Garupe are horrified by this accusation. They implore Father Valignano to let them go to Japan to find Father Ferreira and uncover the truth. Reluctantly, Father Valignano obliges. Japan is known as being a country that is inhospitable to Christians.
If I had to pick a favorite director, I think I would pick Martin Scorsese. He has given us so many classics, but this film may look slightly different to fans of Scorsese's other works. The usual camera flairs and movements are greatly subdued here. Except for a few notable exceptions (such as the "heaven's eye view" used in this opening scene between the three Jesuits and a dolly zoom later in the film), this film does not have many of Scorsese's trademarks from films such as Goodfellas or The Departed.
What it does have is a dedication to its story.
Here, the story does not call for flair or a great deal of camera movement. It calls for the camera simply forcing us to grapple with what we see. We are bystanders, unable to save the people on screen from impending torture. The camera is still, and we are forced to consider what we see.
That is not to say that the camerawork here is subpar in any way. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does a fantastic job of capturing the beauty of both the Japanese landscapes as well as the tender devotion of the believers. It was Prieto who garnered the film's sole Academy Award nomination. In my mind, it was a travesty that the film did not receive more nominations, and I also thought that Prieto should have won for his work on the film.
I must make one more technical observation before continuing in my analysis of the plot, and that is in regards to the movie's sound. As you could undoubtedly surmise from the title of the film, silence plays a key role. Ambient sounds such as crickets and waves make for a contemplative feeling throughout much of the film. The score, when it is deployed, has harsh, dissonant sounds that signify the danger ahead for the Jesuits. I applaud this film for its willingness to let powerful moments hang in silence. This gives us the opportunity to consider what we are seeing.
Rodrigues and Garupe come to Japan along with their Japanese guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). We come to find out that Kichijiro gave in to Japanese oppressors who came to his family and ordered them to renounce the Christian faith. He stepped on the fumie - a figurine or picture of Christ. This was the way that the Japanese forced Christians to apostatize. But Kichijiro's family did not relent. He was forced to watch them be burned alive.
As the movie continues, Rodrigues and Garupe realize that they are going into greater and greater levels of danger. They find Christians on a Japanese island, but the longer the priests stay there, the more danger they bring on the others. Finally, the dreaded Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) comes to the village looking for Christians. Ogata's work here is fantastic, and I think he should have garnered more buzz in the Best Supporting Actor category of the Oscars. His character is one of the most important in the film, and the fact that Scorsese and fellow screenwriter Jay Cocks wrote his character the way they did is another reason why this film is so astounding.
In this film, we are certainly given the reasons why it is so important for the Jesuits to spread their faith. But the amazing feat of this film is that we are also given the Japanese rationale. Now, that is not to say that the Japanese are absolved of any wrongdoing. They are still torturing these people. But, in America, we have often rationalized torture in the past due to our perspective. Just think of Guantanamo. So, I think that it is important for the Japanese rationale to be heard even if it ultimately does not hold up. And - let me be clear - it doesn't. In the Japanese rationale for why they so brutally snuff out Christianity, you can hear many of the arguments used in political discussion today. I don't want to delve too far into immigration politics, but I do think that it bears consideration. It's easy for us to push away "outsiders" until we are the outsiders being pushed away.
I was also moved by the faith of the Japanese Christians. In one scene, Christians are tortured by being tied to crosses on the shore so that they drown as the tide comes in. One of the Christians, Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto), sings amid the waves. It is powerfully moving. Scorsese said that it was a profoundly spiritual experience to shoot that scene.
Eventually, Rodrigues and Garupe are separated. Rodrigues is put through many situations where his faith is tested and he has to deal with betrayal and the Japanese aggression toward his beliefs. Finally, he is captured. He finds himself in a Japanese prison with other Christians. Here, the Inquisitor attempts to break him.
I was appalled at the repeated moments where Father Rodrigues either inwardly or even overtly compares the suffering he is enduring to that of Christ. He certainly has a Messiah complex. Maybe that type of thing is easy to see in others but difficult to see in our own lives.
That is not to downplay the suffering that Rodrigues endures. It is great. He is forced to watch as other Christians are hung over "the pit." I will not go into great detail here, but suffice it to say that this is an extremely painful experience. Finally, Rodrigues finds the man he has been searching for.
Father Ferreira is different now - Japanese through and through. He has renounced his Christian faith. Not only that, but he now actively helps the Japanese by being a sort of customs agent. He searches through belongings of travelers from other countries for any signs of Christianity.
As he hears the wailing of the other Christians being tortured, Rodrigues is implored by Ferreira to apostatize. Then comes this movie's most powerful moment. As Rodrigues stares down at the fumie and considers his next move, he hears the voice of God telling him to step. The last part of the voiceover, in particular, is so moving to me.
You see, I'm not sure if Silence gets the theology right here. I'm not sure if the decision Rodrigues ultimately makes here is truly how God would want me to act in that situation. My first reaction is to say that I should hold firm to my faith - what I say is the most integral aspect of my life. I hold my faith in God more dearly than anything else. But then I think about the verse I opened this review with, and I think about the wails of the other Christians. I wonder - would it be selfish to do anything other than step on the fumie and outwardly renounce my faith for the sake of others? Would God want me to do that?
But in the end, my answer is this - I don't know. I really don't know how I would react in that situation. I don't know what God would want me to do. But I do know this...
...if I did find myself in that situation, I know God would direct me.
He would make it clear to me what I should do in that moment. Silence depicts this more clearly than any movie I've ever seen. The assurance of God in the most dire of circumstances.
But, this is not where the movie ends. I have heard some who find the movie's ending to be a little too on the nose. I completely disagree. When you're wrestling with the material as I have - when it has such a personal application - the main point of tension then becomes the outward expression of beliefs vs. the inward surety of those beliefs.
Rodrigues follows after Ferreria and becomes a Japanese. We see him in the later years of his life as we hear voiceover from a traveller who had met him in Japan. We then see him after he has died. In a scene that is evocative of Citizen Kane, we find that Rodrigues has continued to hold to his beliefs inside his heart though he has given every outward sign of renouncing them.
Silence is a long film. It is a hard film to watch, in many ways. And yet, it is profoundly beautiful. It is the best representation of how God speaks to the faithful that I have ever seen on film. It left me thinking and considering long after the end credits had rolled.
But more than anything, it affirmed my faith in God. To me, that is the highest calling to which any work of art can aspire. I know God will reveal to me what must be revealed in due time. I may not know now, but He will let me know when the time is right. In the meantime, I must be faithful. I think the greatness of Silence is that it forces us to consider that being faithful may not look exactly like we think it should. It is not on us to judge others in their pursuit of faithfulness. Instead, we must listen for the voice of God in our own lives as He guides us on the path of faithfulness set before us.
Note on content: This film is brutal at points. As the viewer, you are confronted by torture and other forms of physical and emotional pain. It is stark, and it is horrifying. But it is crucial for us to confront these images so that the film's ending will resonate. Still, you should be aware of the content in the film. There is no sexual content to speak of in this film, other than the fact that some men are shown in loincloths that do not cover very much. But there is no overt nudity. There is no cursing in the film, but there are instances of apostasy and blasephemy that may be upsetting to some viewers. Overall, this is a hard film to watch at points, but the beauty of the cinematography and the meditative nature of the film give viewers ample opportunity to breathe and consider what is happening. I found this to be a powerfully moving film, and I would recommend it with the highest regards.