God’s Will, or the lack thereof, lies at the core of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, based on the novel by the Japanese author Shûsaku Endô. It’s a contemplative, hushed tale marked with moments of violent ecstasy (in the true sense of the word), that rounds off Scorsese’s triptych of films concerning faith, following on from The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Set in the 17th century, we follow two young Jesuits priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) as they travel to an isolated Japan which has severed ties with the West.
The missionaries’ goal is to discover if their former teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced his faith and become an apostate. The Japan they encounter is a hellish place, with echoes both of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Catholics are scalded with water from hot springs until they die, or endure anazuri – being hung upside down in pits to slowly bleed to death. The torture only ends if they renounce their faith by placing their foot on an image of Christ. The two young priests fear for their lives but are spurred on by their religious zeal to serve the underground Christians that populate Nagasaki and the surrounding areas. Silence’s pace is slow, reflective, even stilted at times. Scorsese ponders: if we publicly renounce God but keep him in our hearts is that legitimate?
Feudal Japan is referred to as a swamp where the roots of Christianity will not take. Is the “one true faith” the faith of all the people of the Earth? Scorsese tackles Christianity’s colonial past, explored through the dialogues between Garfield’s Rodrigues and Issei Ogata’s Inquisitor, which make for some of Silence’s most captivating moments. Unsurprisingly, Scorsese does not flinch from the violence of religion both in actual and intellectual terms. The violence committed by the Japanese is a counterpoint to the violence committed towards their country by the intrusion of the West and Christianity. While it is evident that Scorsese falls more on the side of Catholicism, his eyes and ears are far from ignorant of the concerns of the Far East.
Scorsese also plays the part of priest, loading Silence with religious iconography, providing a demanding film that asks complex questions. Some of the historical religious concerns may feel anachronistic to modern eyes, especially when juxtaposed with the logical counter-arguments posed in the dense dialogue. When it comes to denying Christ, non-believers will likely ask what all the fuss is about when, pragmatically, a human life is hanging in the balance. Yet if we allow ourselves – as Scorsese asks us – to place ourselves in the shoes of these priests, then we have a graceful film of stoic power, which wrestles with the very nature of faith.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh