Silence review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
True to its title, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a picture with much contemplation and little reliance on music to push the emotion. When the film opens in darkness, there are no words and only the sounds of a quiet Japanese field. When some Christians are tortured for refusing to apostate, there is no music and very little sound. And when a Jesuit is forced to contemplate the tough decision of renouncing his faith for the lives of others, the soundtrack drops entirely.
Scorsese doesn’t want to tell us how to feel in this story of two Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) seeking their mentor Ferrera (Liam Neeson) that has apostate in 17th century Japan. The director wants us to understand the maddening struggle of Andrew Garfield’s character of Rodrigues who arrives in Japan to find fearful Christians in hiding. The uneasier Garupe (Driver) helps Rodrigues bring a glimmer of hope to the secret Japanese Christians by holding confessions, communion and mass. The villagers consider them a blessing, but the two begin questioning their impact when the Japanese government comes to force apposition on all the villagers. A few refuse to disgrace the god they worship and are sentenced to slow deaths.
The two Jesuits remain in hiding, watching helplessly as those discovered to be Christians are crucified by the sea as the tide comes in to drown them. Though Rodrigues narrates much of this exposition, he doesn’t divulge his true feelings about watching these men die, most likely because we already know them. There is no swelling music to emphasize how tragic this torture is. The deaths of the men who drown are drowned out only by the sounds of a forceful tide. Their bodies are taken down, burned and the bones scattered into the sea to prevent a Christian burial. No music and no dialogue are present with the exception of Rodrigues’ explanation of the events over the course of a few days. It is a quiet and sorrowful death without much explanation for such atrocities.
As the death toll mounts, Rodrigues finds himself coming down with a crisis of his own faith. The dwindling number of Christians in Japan and the lack of god’s guidance in his quest to find Ferrera bring Rodrigues to the brink of madness. When the Japanese government eventually takes him in, they continuously force him to apostate less he watch even more Christians die. His faith is put to the test in many ways. A dirty thief continuously follows Rodrigues, selling him out, renouncing Christ for the Japanese forces that corner him and groveling to be forgiven for his sins multiple times. The Japanese Inquisitor cackles and leers at Rodrigues in the many conversations they have about religion and why the Japanese government does not need Christianity.
And then comes one of the most powerful scenes where Rodrigues finally confronts Ferrera in a deeply emotional talk of god and his importance. Though Ferrera speaks as though he believes this new way of perceiving god, Rodrigues can see the glimmer in his eyes that he didn’t want to do this. As the Japanese interpreter continues to antagonize Rodrigues as well, there is a question of how long Rodrigues can be loyal to his faith before it means nothing when others die. It’s a powerful performance from the surprisingly effective Andrew Garfield, as are the dependably strong actors of Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.
One might assume from this story that this is a pro-Christian, anti-Japanese movie. One might even side with the Japanese in how the government is simply trying to remove what they consider to be a harmful outside practice. Scorsese thankfully tries not to favor right or wrong in this picture. In his own unique method of beautiful and simple filmmaking, he’s conceived a picture that attempts to seek an understanding of religion. Rodrigues’ quest finds him hallucinating visions of saints and Jesus, trying to adhere to their teachings, but fearful of not remaining true to his faith.
Silence ends with a somber questioning if faith can remain alive in the heart when it cannot in physical practice. It asks if there is any importance when there is no answer when life hurdles towards a slow, painful and quiet end. I don’t think Scorsese so much wants us to root for Rodrigues to prevail as much as he wants us to understand his madness, his drive, his questioning of life. Maybe there is some answer buried beneath the violence and hatred of competing religions or maybe there is no answer for life that ends with whimpers of faith. If we listen just close enough to this picture, we will know the answer, but the message isn’t so much important as the listening itself. And, per Scorsese’s usually powerful directing abilities, he offers plenty to intrigue the eyes, the ears and the mind.