It is the 16th century, and in Japan Christianity is floundering. Amid widespread persecution in the country and after ten years of silence, a letter finds its way to Portugal – Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List), a missionary in Japan and a revered figure in the Jesuit community, has apostatised and renounced the Christian way. Two loyal disciples of the faith, Father Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) are dispatched to bring him back, and from there, they soon find themselves undertaking a mission of dubious purpose, and their doctrine is called into question – as is their very reason for being in Japan to begin with.
Silence is Martin Scorsese’s long-developed passion project, conceived in the years following the release of 1988’s controversial The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ. Adapted from Shusaku Endou’s 1966 novel, Silence is a study of two things at its core – its characters and the matter of their faith and its compatibility in a world that does not recognise it.
The thrust of the narrative is a slowly gestating crisis of faith, and faith and the problems associated with it are portrayed in a variety of ways throughout the film – through its cinematography as well as through its cast. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – who also shot Babel and Brokeback Mountain – makes use of fog so as to emphasise the uncertainty of the journey the main characters are undertaking, and overheard shots, implying the "presence" of God in Portugal, vanish entirely when the missionaries reach Japan’s shores. There is no reliance on an overbearing score, either, with ambient noise taking precedence – the hum of cicadas is heard often and the music is often monotonous and low in pitch.
The central characters are divided between the unyielding Christian and the malleable Christian through Garrpe and Rodriguez, and Ferreira lends his voice as the assimilated Christian later. As the two priests grapple with both their mission and protecting the Japanese Christians that remain, doubts enter their minds – Garrpe becomes impatient, and Rodriguez changes from an unquestioning believer to someone constantly seeking validation and yearning for God to give him reassurance. He struggles to deal with what he perceives as the suffocating silence of a deity who may not even exist, and we watch his zeal and convictions erode as the film progresses.
The Japanese cast provides the other side of the theoretical coin. Indeed, a good number of Japanese characters essentially serve as counterpoints to the wayward padres – Kichijiro (Yousuke Kubozuka) serves as an enduring reminder with regards to the troubles that Christianity faced in Japan. He is a character who desperately attempts to remain true to his convictions yet finds himself succumbing to temptation at every turn even as the padres call upon him to help them – him frequently asking Rodriguez for a confession is a staple of the film. Torn between remaining faithful and guaranteeing his own safety with him following the orders of authority without question, he is representative of the folly of the priests’ mission to introduce a religion to an environment it cannot possibly thrive in, while being aware of his own failings.
Scorsese, dealing with delicate matters, makes sure not to take sides as well – and nowhere in the film is this better conveyed than the Inquisitor, played masterfully by Issei Ogata. The conversations that he and Rodriguez have result in some genuinely compelling commentary on Japan’s state of affairs while serving to underscore the futility of the priests, using a sharp tongue and simple but effective analogies to make his case. He is not evil – Ogata’s performance, indeed, shows him as very much amiable in his own way. They are simply two men on different sides, and it is the Inquisitor’s duty to show Rodriguez the error of his ways.
The characters bring the issue of faith to the forefront, and through their respective plights the primary theme of the film is conveyed strongly – the central issue, however, is that at its core this is essentially what the feature is. Religious viewers and those keen on history and character interaction will doubtlessly enjoy this, but the film is a protracted test of faith across its punishingly long running time. It sometimes speaks more as a lecture than as a proper drama, and although the film puts its characters through numerous ordeals and offers thought-provoking questions, Silence is not something that can truly be watched purely as entertainment. Its length makes its message seem self-indulgent, and the film suffers for it.
Some casting choices are also somewhat misplaced, and this chiefly rests on Garfield. Although he delivers a good all-round performance – and he is no stranger to working in dramatic productions – his reactions to certain developments within the film are sometimes overwrought and a touch excessive. He seems prone to wearing a single expression that wavers between hurt and perplexed, and one may end up thinking that he was chosen for the role for how he resembles Jesus with a fully-grown beard. Driver, on the other hand, is tragically absent for a fair portion of the film’s length, and in his few moments of emotional intensity he offers a gripping and more authentic performance. Neeson’s role is also fleetingly brief, despite its impact.
In addition, though perhaps this is symptomatic of a transition from one medium to another – liberties have often been taken when bringing books to the silver screen, after all – the film occasionally delivers its central message in a rather obvious and heavy-handed fashion through both on-the-nose imagery and narration, particularly in the finale and often elsewhere. These instances detract from an otherwise competent script as the film becomes aloof in its presentation, attempting to lift the burden of thought from the audience.
Ultimately, Scorsese and his collaborators have put a painstaking amount of effort into fastidiously adapting Endou’s work – but it is that, an adaptation of an intriguing but rather dry work of literature, and not much else besides. It is a faithful work and a noteworthy character examination, but perhaps because of its literary basis it’s a far cry from other works of his such as Wolf of Wall Street or Gangs of New York which are entertaining films as a whole, and not an adaptation of a work that studies a period in our history that may end up sailing over the heads of those who view it. It is competently done, and worth a watch – but it is not without sin.