The word “martyr” originally meant “to bear witness,” and is there really any better word to describe the filmography of Martin Scorsese, a man who has told more stories of men putting themselves through the ringer than any other human alive? Scorsese’s dialogue with his Christian faith and upbringing has been a central point in his oeuvre since the beginning, and Silence is his deepest exploration of the subject yet – even moreso than the film he made about Christ.
Silence is largely told from the perspective of Padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit Priest who goes with another Priest, Garrpe (Adam Driver), to Japan – where Christianity has been outlawed – to find out what happened to their mentor, Padre Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after hearing rumors of his apostasy. The two are guided to Japan by Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Japanese apostate, and immediately become spiritual leaders for a small village of secret Christians. And as hard as it is for them to live in hiding, trying to preach the gospel to a people whose language they barely understand, their life gets worse when the Japanese inquisition finds out about the village, tortures and kills the worshippers, and forces the Priests to separate. And when Rodrigues is captured by the Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), he is pushed to the limits of his faith, physically and spiritually.
Silence is the sort of movie that you really have to force yourself through, and not just because it’s over two and a half hours. Silence may be the heaviest movie of the year, and it does so with brutality and honesty. For all the priests and their literal mission, there is very little mercy or even proselytizing. When Rodrigues and Garrpe land in Japan, they don’t have to spend any time converting, the Christians there find them and immediately request their lead in rituals and sacraments. Within days they’re leading mass and hearing confessions in a language they can’t understand. But through the language barrier, we see the hope that the Padres provide to the villagers who now have guides to an afterlife of paradise – an escape from the oppression they live through every day.
Conversely, we see the literal torture the inquisition puts them through. They are rounded up and caged, forced either to apostatize by stepping on an image of Christ, or be crucified like their savior, and battered by incoming waves until they die. Or they’re burned alive, or wrapped up and drowned, or tied to stakes and scolded by hot-spring water, or tied upside-down and forced to bleed out drop-by-drop through a small slit made above their ear. We see the Japanese martyred by their own people for their beliefs; and Rodrigues, spared from the physical torture by the Inoue, sees it too, and begins to ask why his God lets his most devoted be tested so harshly.
Inoue gives Rodrigues an ultimatum: As he becomes the last Priest in Japan, he can either choose to end the inquisition and set all the prisoners free by publically apostatizing, or stay devout and watch every Christian in Japan tortured until they either apostatize or die. And this becomes the driving force of the movie, the question of what is faith worth, to its leaders and its followers? Is the price of being a martyr one that you can be willing to let other people pay out of your own devotion? Rodrigues becomes a martyr in both senses of the word, as a priest pushed to the brink of his own sanity because of his faith, and as a witness to the torture of others for theirs.
And to Silence’s credit, even though it’s told mainly from the Priest’s perspective, it does not take his side. Issey Ogata’s Inquisitor, by far the break-out performance in the film in much the same way as Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, makes many compelling and fair arguments against the missionary. He insists that because of the cultural divide, the Japanese are incapable of actually being Christians, and that they are sacrificing themselves not because they have faith in Jesus, but in Rodrigues. He continually points out that he is selfish for not apostatizing and freeing the prisoners, instead allowing them to be killed so he can remain faithful. He reveals Rodrigues’ own delusions of grandeur at being Christ-like for holding true while he lets others die on crosses. In this way, Silence also refutes the popular white-savior narrative often found in films like these by making the case that these Priests don’t offer redemption, only the chance to be tortured and die for their beliefs. Or, it also asks, is suffering key to the nature of faith, can one be saved without sin, need you know torture to know grace?
It shouldn’t come to a surprise just how well made this film is on a technical scale. Scorsese has more than earned his place on the cinema pantheon, and Silence is another example of how. But, opposed to the extremist qualities of many of his recent films, the most extreme quality of Silence is its restraint. Not modesty, mind you, restraint. The film doesn’t hesitate to show men dying on crosses or being beheaded, entire families lit on bonfires; but it never makes a spectacle out of them. Silence is sincere in making them martyrs, not props, and forcing us to bear witness. Each death feels as heavy on the screen as it does on the conscious of Rodrigues. That restraint also comes into play with the thematic elements. There are times where the director seems to tip things in favor of the Priests, but the movie as a whole never really favors one reading over the other. Every argument reveals bias or ignorance in the character making it, even as they make good points. The movie allows the viewers-as-gods to be the final judge.
Of course, so much credit to that is also due to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who manages to capture the natural beauty of the setting (Taiwan subbing for 17th century Japan), but also how dreadful it can be, with armies of inquisitors marching prisoners through mist and mud along the coasts; or how he creates a panopticon of wooden bars out of the prison where the Christians are kept, watching executions through the slats. And over their decades’ long partnership, editor Thelma Schoonmaker shows her skill by cutting exactly when she needs to to make a scene of torture stick and preserve the dignity of the tortured. I don’t recall there being any real soundtrack to the movie, either, forcing us to pay full attention to the natural sounds of cicadas and rain being broken by the wails of Christians.
Silence isn’t really the sort of movie where good and bad apply, because it’s not meant to be enjoyed. It’s a movie meant to weigh you down after seeing it, to force you into confronting your own spiritual axioms. Sitting through its 160 minutes is a test in its own right, if not of faith then at least of spiritual endurance. If you’re willing to come out a little shaken, definitely try to see it; and though it’s a movie with tons worth rewatching for, nobody can blame you for only wanting to see it once.