Silence, rated R
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars
There are so few good films about religion – particularly ones that ask questions rather than give answers. In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a powerful question is posed: is it right to renounce one’s faith if such an act ends the suffering of others?
In the 17th century, two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), travel to Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced Christianity under torture by the Japanese. Upon arriving in Japan in a search for Ferreira, the priests give hope to a village of persecuted Japanese Christians, but it’s not long before Rodrigues is captured and held before the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). The Japanese demand that Rodrigues step on an image of Christ and renounce his faith, and in return, they will release the persecuted Christians they hold captive.
If renouncing his religion means suffering will end for so many people, isn’t that the right thing to do? Is it selfish to cling onto faith when the only person you’re saving is yourself? And is the Christian gospel something truly to be shared in every nation? These are some of the many questions Scorsese asks here.
The character of the believer plagued with doubts has been seen before in Scorsese’s work – namely in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in which Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) struggles to accept his position as the savior of mankind. If Jesus is both God and man, then he must be susceptible to man’s temptations – that is the conceit behind The Last Temptation of Christ. Here, in Silence, you have a Christ-like figure tested again and again, and though he succumbs to a kind of defeat by the film’s end, his faith is still there – hidden, dormant, silent.
Andrew Garfield makes every moment of doubt and uncertainty real for us – he’s likely to get nominated for Best Actor this year for Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, but he should be nominated for this film.
This is the most austere, serious picture Scorsese has ever made. The explosive camerawork, rapid-fire editing and brilliant use of popular music – which are among the qualities that first drew me to the filmmaker as a young boy – are absent here. The questions the film asks are so pure, the suffering of its lead characters so intense on its own, that any kind of kinetic, whiplash-inducing filmmaking would betray the subject matter. Don’t think for a second that I’m dismissing either style – after all, Scorsese’s last film, the exhilarating The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), is the best film of this decade – although Silence may very well give it a run for its money.
This is the film Scorsese has wanted to direct for nearly 30 years, and it’s understandable why it was so difficult to make. Based on Shûsaku Endô’s novel, the subject matter of Silence is unlike anything else being released in Hollywood’s current climate, particularly with this kind of budget and such a wide release. It was awe-inspiring to hear the silence in the cinema as it played – there was a real reverence for the passion of this filmmaker and his images onscreen. (I hope everyone is as lucky to get this cinema experience – sadly, I doubt that will be the case, as today’s audiences are conditioned in such a way that people won’t know what to do with a film as meditative as Silence.) Scorsese recently said he hasn’t watched much in the way of current cinema because the images don’t mean anything anymore. Here, they mean something.
His films, as Thelma Schoonmaker once said, are all about immersing the audience in a particular world and making you feel it. Here, you feel the inner torment of Rodrigues at every turn, but there is also an interesting remove here that I haven’t often seen in a Scorsese picture. Many scenes unfold with a straightforwardness that suggests a viewpoint other than the two priests – almost a divine presence observing these events and remaining silent throughout the suffering.
The silence in the title ostensibly refers to the silence of God as Rodrigues and others endure their pain. But there’s another kind of silence near the film’s end – the silence of the priests who give up their devotion to God. And yet, in the final haunting image of the film, we see how in their silence, there is a kind of prayer all its own.
There is a character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who lies, betrays and watches his own family murdered while he rejects his faith and still lives. It’s an ongoing joke in the film that he constantly wants to confess to Rodrigues after he’s yet again done something wrong (in one instance, betraying Rodrigues and leading him to the Inquisitor).
But near the end, once all of the priests in Japan have renounced their faith and Christianity is spoken of no more, he is the only one to mention Christ to Rodrigues. Despite his constant wavering of faith, Kichijiro, in a way, brings Rodrigues’s awareness back to Christ.
And there is another question. Who is the nobler sufferer? The one who refuses to abandon his faith, or the sinner who apostatizes, again and again, and yet seeks forgiveness and continues to believe despite his sins?
Silence is a monumental achievement – the best film of the year. The film has a few scenes of violence, but it’s very restrained and could have earned a PG-13 rating, in my opinion. I believe the film is appropriate for viewers 15 and older.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.