Silence opens with an overture of sorts. We hear insects—crickets or grasshoppers, maybe, legs scratching together like so many violins warming up in an orchestra pit—softly at first, then rising. And suddenly: nothing. The title flashes on the screen: SILENCE.
The removal of the soundtrack creates a void for the questions of spiritual emptiness that follow. In Portugal, Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) push for permission to travel to Japan, where their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), was last seen. Japan is in the midst of a horrible repression—Christians tortured to death, priests beheaded—and Ferreira, they have been told, has given up the faith in order to save his own life.
We see why that might have happened in a series of shots from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto that can only be described as beautiful horror. On a mist-banked hill surrounding a series of hot springs, we see crucified believers showered with boiling hot water until their skin peels. They welcome their martyrdom, but the look on Ferreira's face shows his faith is failing him. Are the rumors true or merely vicious slanders determined to undermine the remaining believers in the Land of the Rising Sun?
Rodrigues and Garrpe travel first to
Hong Kong Macau, where they meet Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a Japanese sailor who may or may not be a Christian. The drunken possible apostate leads the padres to a village off the Japanese coast where the townsfolk have desperately kept the faith—praying in secret, baptizing newborns—in the face of terror. Should the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) discover the truth, all shall suffer.
The padres are torn between a trio of imperatives: to spread the faith and minister to their flock; to stay safe in the face of constant danger; and to discover the truth about Ferreira. But they're also torn between a pair of internal pressures: to act as Christ would have acted without presuming to believe themselves as important as Christ.
The central struggle of Silence concerns martyrdom. Suffering for faith is noble, but taking pride in that suffering, especially when others are being harmed in your place, is wicked. Should a priest avoid apostatizing even if it means he and his flock will be tortured? Or should he trample on the face of God in order to alleviate their suffering? Is humility or reverence the proper value to adhere to? And how can he know which is right and holy in the face of heavenly silence?
This is Garfield's second religiously minded film about the horrors of Japanese extremism in recent months. I much preferred his performance in Silence to his turn in Hacksaw Ridge. Whereas Mel Gibson's World War II epic sees Garfield playing a man whose earnestness knows no depths, Silence‘s Martin Scorsese coaxes a fine mixture of confidence and confusion, faith and fear. It helps that Garfield has a talented cast of Japanese actors surrounding him; Rodrigues' Church-endowed swagger contrasts sharply with the timidity and penitence of Kubozuka's Kichijiro, illuminating the film's difficult theme in a way mere dialogue never could.
I won't pretend to be a mind reader or to have any special insight into the psyche or soul of Scorsese, but it should briefly be noted that this is a deeply personal project that clearly means a great deal to him. I can't remember the last time I saw a film about faith that treated the subject with such seriousness and reflection and artistry. As such, we may forgive some of Scorsese's directorial excesses, including an epilogue that makes obvious things that may have been better left shrouded in doubt. He could have had just a bit more faith in his viewers, it seems.