The power of ‘Silence’
Carlos De Loera | Thursday, January 19, 2017
During Thanksgiving break there was a bit of buzz around the trailer for the new Martin Scorsese movie “Silence.” At first I thought that it would just be the classic case of critics going crazy over any project that Scorsese works on — even if it ends not being very good (see: “The Wolf of Wall Street”) — and in part I was correct, but the trailer was also captivating. The trailer showcases the star power that Scorsese can haul, the beautiful cinematography and surprisingly, given the movie title, a lot of noise in the form of vigorously played string instruments. After watching the trailer I was all in for a movie starring Spider-man (Andrew Garfield), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) as Jesuit priests. In fact, I was so in that I immediately went to Amazon and ordered the 1966 Shusako Endo novel of the same name and eagerly awaited for the movie’s Jan. 13 national release.
The movie centers around two young 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priests Sebastiao Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver), who are sent out on a mission to retrieve their former teacher and fellow priest, Fr. Ferreira (Neeson), from Japan and to spread Catholicism to the country. (It is important to note that during this period in history, Japan had outlawed Christianity because of the challenges it placed on a united Japan, and Christians were being persecuted throughout the country.) Rodrigues and Garupe had also been informed that Ferreira had renounced his faith and now had a wife and children. Before arriving to Japan the two priests encounter a Japanese man named Kichijiro in a port city not far from Japan, who agrees to be their guide in Japan in hopes of finally returning to his home country. When they arrive in Japan, they are greeted by a devoutly Catholic village whose citizens have been secretly practicing their faith for years. The two priests are initially in awe of the great devotion that these villagers show to their faith and agree to offer mass and reconciliation for the villagers nightly. Due to the fear of being captured by authorities, the priests are confined to a far-off cottage in the hills while the sun is out without much to do or eat given the village’s limited resources. After some time Japanese officials arrive to the island to make sure that the villagers have apostatized and threaten any remaining Christians with death if they dare not renounce their faith. After witnessing a myriad of persecutions the priests and villagers decide it is best for the priests to split up and evangelize other parts of the country (since the two are believed to be the last priests in the country) and to find Ferreira. I’ll stop there in fear of giving away too much of the plot.
If you aren’t sold on watching the movie based on the plot alone, then that’s a shame, but, in addition to the intriguing premise, the performances in this movie are quite impressive. After watching the trailer, I wasn’t completely sold on Andrew Garfield sharing a lead role in a dramatic movie because I hadn’t seen him do so (I have yet to see Hacksaw Ridge), but I had faith in Adam Driver’s lead character abilities. However, after reading Endo’s novel I realized that Garfield’s character would, in fact, be the star of the show, and the movie reflected this fact. To my surprise, he does a stellar job of portraying a man who is profoundly faithful, yet deeply troubled by his faith in light despair. Driver also does an awesome job of playing Garfield’s right-hand man as a priest who is pushed to his limits. In a not-so-surprising turn of events, Liam Neeson plays Liam Neeson. That’s right, he was a Portuguese priest with an Irish accent. In spite of his inability to even try to have a Portuguese accent, Neeson does deliver a solid performance, which I measured by the overly strong emotions I felt toward his character. What really raises the bar of the movie are the performances from the Japanese actors. Issey Ogata gives a Christoph Waltz-esque performance as the role of the Inquisitor, in which he plays a strangely likable antagonist whose wit, knowledge and power of persuasion seem to be unmatched. Tadanobu Asano also shines as Rodrigues’ interpreter during the priest’s solo adventures. Asano’s ability to channel the character’s contempt for the Catholic Church makes his performance impressive and crucial. There are also many solid performances put forth by the Japanese Christian villagers.
Aside from the tremendous acting performances, what also makes the movie stand out is the themes it deals with. The most prominent theme is faith and how far people will go to preserve their faith. This is most easily seen in the extreme torture that the captured Japanese Christians go through, which is so meticulously depicted in the film that I, at points, had a hard time watching. Extreme acts of faith are also demonstrated by the priests who refuse to give up their beliefs. Rodrigues’ faith, however, falters when he thinks about how God continues to remain silent in times of despair and how this leads to doubt and frustration. Endo’s storytelling works best when he questions the line between faith, fanaticism and self-indulgence. In the movie, Rodrigues questions whether the Japanese Christians are truly devoted to the Christian faith or if they merely praise the religious icons (crosses, rosaries, etc.) and the priests themselves. The movie explores the idea of self-indulgence in the inner thoughts of Rodrigues, who constantly compares his situation to that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and feels that he is one of the only people that can save the Japanese faithful. Another theme explored is Eastern culture versus Western culture. One of the main arguments of the Japanese authorities is that Christianity cannot prosper in a country like Japan because it is fundamentally different from countries where Christianity thrives, and that Christian evangelization is a facade for Western imperialist desires.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and will give it a way-too-high rating because it forced me to think about important questions that every person wrestles with: What is the importance of faith in my own life? How much would I be willing to sacrifice for my faith? What is the ultimate truth? Is there an ultimate truth? How am I impacting the world? How much control does my mind have over my body and vice versa? How can I defend my ideologies? Can people who are diametrically opposed truly come to see the world through the eyes of their neighbors? If God is so loving how does he manage to seemingly remain in silence throughout our lives, especially in times of distress? What is the importance of doubt?
This two-hour-and-forty-one-minute epic can be enjoyed by people on any point of the religious spectrum, not only thematically, but also as a piece of art. The problems I had with the movie had less to do with the rushed ending and more to do with some of the questionable portrayals of the Japanese people. The sweeping landscapes that are beautifully captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto using 35mm film and the keen direction of Scorsese amount to a breathtaking adaption of Endo’s story of faith and despair.