The silence in the title of Martin Scorsese’s most recent film refers to the silence of the voice of God, when one is alone and desperate, praying to the unseen, asking for a response, yet hearing silence, deafening silence, in return. This is the experience of two Portuguese Jesuits when they journey to Japan as missionaries in Silence.
Set in the 17th Century, the film opens in Macau at a Catholic missionary college. Two young priests, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), learn the news that their mentor is missing and word is that he has renounced his faith. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is said to have apostatised through standing on the carved image of Christ. Rodrigues and Garupe insist that their mission is to find Father Ferreira and restore his reputation, certain that the rumours of his unfaithfulness are untrue.
Under the cover of night, with the drunken Japanese fisherman Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) as their guide, the two priests sail to Japan. Upon arrival, they discover the efforts Japanese authorities are taking to eradicate Japan of Christianity. Villagers live in fear of torture and death, practicing their adopted faith in secret. They long for confession, for their infants to be baptised and for a priest to perform mass in their makeshift churches. Rodrigues and Garupe minister to the villagers, but they witness the punishment their devotees are subjected to in the name of their faith. Three of their worshipers are drowned, strapped to wooden crucifixes the rising tide eventually kills them. The young priests’ faith does not wane, but their desperation grows when they are eventually captured and imprisoned.
In various moments the Japanese officials describe to the Jesuit priests the incompatibility of the Christian faith with the Japanese way of life, cultural traditions and even language. Martin Scorsese has a long tradition of weaving Christian (and Catholic, more specifically) allegory into his films. The discord between faith and the reality of the human experience is a common theme, although in this film the depiction is explicit. Rodrigues must attempt to reconcile the conflict between his experiences and his beliefs, where God is silent to his calls for guidance.
There is an expression around long term projects, that there is a danger that a project, when finally delivered, will be ‘still-born’. It is a notion that the project will be over worked, its relevance will dwindle, and whatever life and energy that conceived the project will have expired. This seems to be the case with Silence, a project Scorsese has be working on for some 25 years or more. Silence is visually exquisite, with a soundscape vast and compelling. Gorgeous cinematography makes use of unusual techniques and the stunning landscape. As the title suggests, there are great pockets of silence in the soundtrack, which work well in propelling the narrative. The violence is unrestrained, yet there is an equally measured capacity for forgiveness and compassion, and devotion, to counter the bleakness. Scorsese is one of the most accomplished and skilled directors we have been graced with, and yet somehow this film leaves a feeling that something was missed. Leaving the cinema, there was the feeling that some revelation had not been made clear. I felt that I simply didn’t ‘get’ the film.
Silence is in cinemas from 16th February through Transmission Films.