You could never accuse Martin Scorsese of lacking in diversity when it comes to his body of work. Silence, Scorsese’s latest to hit the screens, follows a fowl-mouthed Wolf of Wall Street which was itself preceded by the charming (and, unusually, child-friendly) Hugo. In a way, however, Silence predates both having been first conceived back in the nineties – not long after Scorsese concluded work on his Last Temptation of Christ, a film of kindred spirit to its later successor. Silence battled much in its pilgrimage to production – appropriately surviving its own ‘hell’, albeit a development one – and must be termed another passion project of willpower for Scorsese. It’s not hard to see why. Adapted from the book of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tackles themes potent amid Scorsese’s oeuvre. Guilt, faith, Catholicism…all present and correct. I have niggles but wouldn’t hesitate to call the effort worth it.
Silence begins with news from the former mentor of Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), that Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal are being persecuted by Japanese authorities. Though set in the 17th Century, a rejection of foreigners baring different faiths makes for an undeniably contemporary commentary. When word reaches Portugal that Ferreira has himself apostatised Rodrigues and Garrpe refuse to believe it and convince Ciarán Hinds’ Father Valignano that they must travel east to learn the truth and save Japanese Catholicism in the process. The grandiosity of their mission is not lost on the film’s inherent themes which discuss arrogance and faith, selflessness and martyrdom. Silence makes no bones about its allusions to the life of Christ and whilst often these are strokes too broadly applied they are certainly intellectually provocative. No surprise is that Scorsese finds himself most attracted to the concept of Judas and it is the question of the free will prerogative that dwells most deeply on the mind of Garfield’s Rodrigues. Throughout the film, Rodrigues and Garrpe witness the horrors of poverty and persecution in Japan, cinematographically portrayed in enveloping fogs and swamps as a nightmarish Garden of Eden, and are stricken to the point of battling God’s absence of aid: ‘your silence is terrible’. The torment faced by the priests is one of holding secure their faith within a seemingly godless world. Indeed, this is the message of the inquisitor, Inoue, puppeteer of some truly harrowing tortures: Christianity cannot survive in Japan.
Scorsese’s devotion to the text is clear in his transparent worship of Endō’s original text. Swathes of the script’s dialogue, co-written with Jay Cocks, is transcribed directly from source and it is this faith that contributes to the film’s extended runtime. At 2hrs 40mins there are admittedly sequences that feel overlong but it’s an earned sacrifice due to importance imbued to each and every detail. A piece of cucumber is as significant a prop as a rosary. Drawing out scenes, and well-realising the absolute silence of the book, Scorsese directs a relentlessly intricate picture of suffering and wordlessly allows us into Garfield’s mindset. One suspects that a soundtrack for the film would resemble a recording of John Cage’s 4’33”, it being only with the subtlest tones that any none diegetic audio is applied. This silence of Silence is an asset to the film and simultaneously explodes agony and overcomes any need for wordy exposition – Endō’s novel is for the most part internalised. In the hardest scenes a melodramatic score would’ve undermined the whole point; in striping this back the strings Scorsese makes the torture terribly involving, you may even find yourself willing God to answer their desperate pleads.
The moral debate in Silence is far from black and white however; whilst the perspective and performances certainly lead you to the side of Christianity, there is an unspoken hypocrisy in the idea of a ‘universal’ faith which can only be Catholic and an ignorance of the persecutions they themselves enacted upon so-called heathens. Inoue (a frighteningly endearing Issey Ogata) is fair in his opposition to a potentially threatening religious colonisation which sees white, western priests revered as Christlike figures. The comparisons are, as aforementioned, obvious: three hundred pieces of silver – ten times that which Judas betrayed Jesus for – is offered for the capture of Rodrigues, who is in turn ridden horseback through the crowds. Despite the worship of the Kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians) Rodrigues remains painfully human and battles overwhelming hubris as much as an unreachable quest for omnibenevolence, how can death just be an end if not glorious? Some have suggested a switching of Garfield and Driver in their respective roles as a means of improving Silence but whilst Driver’s is certainly the more mercurial presence and the one you wish for more of, Garfield fulfils the requirements of his role much more effectively than Driver could and vice versa. Garrpe of the book is distant and suggestively the figurative elder of the two with Driver’s cool excellently cast here for that. Likewise, Garfield adds a level of boyish immaturity to the textual Rodrigues that makes his weaknesses all the more believable.
True, images of Jesus and the voice of God feel too heavily applied for a film of such nuance, whilst the are-they/aren’t-they Portuguese lilts of accent used by Garfield and Driver represent a similarly Kichijiroic misstep. These weakness aside, Silence is undoubtably another enthralling work from Scorsese, directing with panache and intensity. I confess to having been transfixed.