Martin Scorsese's new film Silence was a bit of a grim choice of movie for New Year's Day but after my reduced cinema attendance last year, I wanted to get 2017 off to the right start.
In the film, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play Portuguese missionaries (Rodrigues and Garupe, respectively) who journey to Japan in the 1640s to find out whether their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has indeed recanted his Christian faith under torture, as rumour suggests. The two men refuse to believe that this could be true and, accompanied by a jittery Japanese guide named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), they sneak into the country, which has forbidden Jesuit priests from entering for almost a decade. They are heartened to discover a village with a large population of secret Christian converts who are delighted by the arrival of the two priests, even though concealing Jesuits carries a stiff penalty.
Rodrigues' faith is constantly challenged as he must first watch from afar as exposed converts are tortured and executed in slow, brutal ways, and is later captured by Inoue, the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), who is trying to stamp out all vestiges of Christianity in Japan. Rodrigues dreams of martyrdom but Inoue has learned from past experiences of the negative consequences of executing Jesuit priests in brutal ways and instead initiates a long, psychological battle with Rodrigues, using tactic after tactic to make the priest renounce his faith — outwardly, at least, if not in his heart — and end his efforts to spread Christianity throughout Japan.
Silence isn't always an easy film to watch: it's slow-burning, often brutal and with an ending that is drawn out for so long that it loses some of its effectiveness. It is, however, ambitious, thought-provoking and accomplished, and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is simply stunning. The Japanese cast — particularly Ogata and Tadanobu Asano (who plays Rodrigues' interpreter) — are great, but it is Garfield's central performance that holds the film together as his character struggles with his guilt over the suffering of the Japanese converts, the "terrible weight of silence" of his god, and his own delusions of grandeur.
Throughout the film, Rodrigues sees himself as a Jesus figure — he is literally ridden into a town on a donkey in one scene; in another, delirious with thirst, he drinks from a stream, his reflection merging with that of the portrait of Jesus he has always held in his mind. The tortures inflicted by the Inquisitor's men are cruel but as Inoue notes, Rodrigues has the power to stop the suffering and prevent the death of these people simply by recanting. "They're dying for you," one character tells him later in the film. It's easy, too, to sympathise with floppy-haired, doe-eyed Garfield's character and yet, although he believes he is doing the right thing, motivated by the most worthy of causes, he and Garupe arrive in Japan, the last two Jesuit missionaries, an "army of two", expecting to simply change the faith of an entire country.
I've liked most of Scorsese's films although loved very few (controversially, The Departed is one of my favourites) and it's hard to believe that he directed this right after The Wolf of Wall Street (talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime). Clearly, though, Silence has long been a passion project for Scorsese and that really comes across during the film. Although you need to be in the right frame of mind to see it, Silence is a serious and sad but very engrossing film and is well worth a watch.