Faith and nuance don’t usually mesh when it comes to film. Though unfortunate, this is not entirely surprising considering the commercial nature of the film industry. To be a success in most cases a film needs to either have a loyal fan base of repeat viewers or possess a broad enough appeal to intrigue the everyday moviegoer. One can see why a film about faith – specifically religious faith – is a financially risky proposition. This is the reason most films involving faith affirm rather than question, because it is more pleasing to be comforted than to be asked to think critically. However, faith remains a fascinating topic because of its pervasive nature in everyday society and it is this pervasiveness that demands for it to be explored in a more probing and thoughtful manner. Thankfully, Martin Scorsese’s incredible filmography has allowed him to create Silence, an almost three-hour long deconstruction and exploration of faith set during a tumultuous time in religious history.
In 17th century Japan the imperial government has rejected Christianity. Now, the Japanese inquisition scours the countryside in search of Christians in order to make them apostatize (renounce Jesus Christ as lord) or die. Two Jesuit priests are thrust into this dangerous environment as they smuggle themselves into Japan in search of Father Ferreira, their former teacher who’s rumored to have apostatized. The leading question of why Ferreira would do such an unthinkable act weighs heavy over the first half of the film as the priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, struggle to remain undetected by the inquisition while also witnessing to a population of secret Christians hidden among the Japanese working class. When they are forced to confront an inquisitorial agent, the film shifts focus, becoming a duel of ideas as the priests must defend not only their faith, but its moral and institutional underpinnings as well.
The cast of Silence is small, but stellar. Andrew Garfield has had a career-best year with his role in Silence as well as his Oscar-nominated performance in Hacksaw Ridge. He imbues within Rodrigues a clear sense of duty to his religion, something that is so simple and pristine at the film’s onset that it demands to be tested and dirtied by the story’s conclusion. However, Rodrigues’ naiveté is never used to deride the character or what he believes; rather it seems to represent the rather careless “Manifest Destiny” attitude of Christianity throughout history. That Japan will not accept Christianity is mystifying to Rodrigues. However, as the film continues and his faith is tested, it becomes more and more difficult for him to remain loyal to the strictures and rules he’s spent his life upholding and even venerating when people’s lives are at stake.
In opposition to Rodrigues are Garupe and the Inquisitor, Inoue. Garupe, played with reliable conviction and intensity by Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), is even more zealous than Rodrigues. Where Rodrigues would see a sphere in any situation, Garupe sees a circle; the strength of his belief lies in how simple their quest and ultimately their faith is to him. Christianity is meant to spread across the world. He and Rodrigues are merely vessels of an inevitable tide.
The Inquisitor, Inoue, adds another layer to the story. Actor Issei Ogata’s unpredictable, inscrutable performance makes Inoue a memorable enigma. Beneath his calm demeanor is an undercurrent of annoyance at the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of the religion that Rodrigues and his kind are attempting to bring to Japan’s shores. While more than capable of verbally sparring with Rodrigues about the merits of their religions, Inoue seems more interested in revealing these shortcomings to Rodrigues. Getting Rodrigues to apostatize is not so much about shaming him, but rather making him realize the shortcomings of the religious institution he serves.
Furthermore, Inoue is not a man opposed to violence, yet not vindictively hateful of Christianity either. He simply believes that it was never meant to flourish in Japan and that the Jesuits should leave them alone. What he does find offensive is their callous, unthinking dismissal of thousands of years of Japanese tradition. In his eyes, Japan, due to the nature of its traditional religious beliefs, is a swamp where no seed of Christianity will ever bloom. It is simply incompatible with Japan’s people. Though an active participant in the violence being perpetrated against the Christians, Inoue maintains that he harbors no ill will toward them. He’s only been forced to act in violence because they have chosen, in their arrogance, to violate the laws of his country. This circular defense of his actions presents a fascinating moral quandary, one which forms the basis for the more meditative, philosophical second half of the film.
Through these character descriptions one can see the complexity of the subject this film explores. Its multicultural dissection of what religion means, especially as two war for the heart of a nation, is fascinating and, incredibly sad. Religion has been a powerful motivator throughout most of recorded history, but though it has led to much progress, it has also caused unimaginable pain.
Based on the book by Shûsaku Endô, writers Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) and Martin Scorsese cleverly explore the complexity of this situation by limiting the amount of characters, giving them very clear motivations and differences, and most importantly, testing the characters’ personal faiths against the laws of the institutions they serve.
The main method of the inquisition to prove someone has apostatized is to place a piece of religious iconography on the ground before the person being questioned. All the person needs to do is step on it and they will be released. It sounds simple, but the gravity of what is being asked is immense for someone who has spent their life dedicated to Christianity. What then, is the person in question to do when they’re told that if they do not apostatize, a group of people will be executed? It’s a fascinating question and one with no clear-cut answer (at least, for these characters). To apostatize is a grave sin, but surely, letting people die is worse. Would Jesus apostatize to save a life? What does one do in the face of such horror when one prays and hears nothing but silence, as the title implies? Left to one’s own judgment, a truly good act might fly in the face of established religious law, but if it is right, does that matter? And if it is right to act against those laws, what then is the value of these man-made institutions?
It’s a philosophically dense, morally complex film ripe for discussion and this is the main reason why I still find myself thinking about it weeks later. In the end, I think the true brilliance of Silence is that, like faith in general, the audience’s reaction to it will largely depend on what they bring to the experience. When Rodrigues sees the face of Jesus Christ around him, is that a sign of anointment or madness? As his psyche is pummeled by the Inquisitor and his tests, Rodrigues begins to hear voices. Is that the voice of God or merely the strength of Rodrigues’ own delusions, seeking to absolve him of any blame for the pain that others have suffered due to his beliefs?
This myriad of questions and the many ways in which this story can be interpreted while not being obtuse are why I believe that Silence is an excellent film. See it with a person that does not share your beliefs. See it with ten. The discussion that follows is sure to be entertaining, if not enlightening.