Towards the end of Martin Scorcese’s pious dedication to the apostate Catholic priests of seventeenth century Japan, Liam Neeson’s character, Ferreira, is called upon by the Japanese inquisitors to engage in dialogue with Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), the very last of the Catholic representatives – now captured – to attempt to track down and ‘rescue’ Ferreira from his Japanese subjugators. Only, Father Ferreira has long since renounced his faith and has by now fully integrated himself into traditional Japanese beliefs and culture.
Ferreira uses the fact that nothing is able to take root in Japan – owing to the country’s aqueous environment, and the tendency for plants to simply rot away – as a metaphor for the country’s people being unable to fully grasp and appreciate the ‘truth’ of the Catholic religion. Pointing to the sun, he explains to Rodrigues that no matter how good and holy had been the intentions of the missionaries, those that had been ‘converted’ by their religious teachings had never really understood fully the true meaning of the scriptures. Theirs was a very literal translation. For them, the sun of God, was not one that rose miraculously after three days to absolve their sins, but one that did so every morning, in the very sky above them.
In effect, the missionaries had been wasting their time, and the thousands of Japan’s ‘saved’ souls were not in fact ‘saved’ at all.
Or so he insinuated.
Whether these were the words of a brow-beaten slave of an intolerant Japanese society, fearful of aggravating his masters, or the knowledgable insight of a now more enlightened soul who had been party to both sides of the reasoning, only he would have known. Regardless, his conclusions shine a light on perhaps the true historic origins of rigid religious dogma, and threaten to undermine their staunch, unalterable, fiercely-guarded ideals and values by reducing them to one simple premise; a premise that man perhaps hijacked for his own gain and controlling purposes, somewhere down the line.
Scorcese was allegedly himself set for the priesthood until the film-making life proved too alluring, and it’s clear that Silence, whilst maybe a little self-indulgent, is the work of a man with great respect for the church and its core values, and at two hours and forty minutes long, he is able to explore the subject matter in some depth in this considered and thoughtful piece.
But what of the film itself? The narrative of Silence contains many parallels with the story of Jesus, with Rodrigues (and to a lesser extent, his colleague, Garupe – Adam Driver), tested considerably by the Japanese as to the true strength of their own unwavering faith, whilst the potential treachery of the weak and confused ‘Judas’ character, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), is omnipresent throughout.
Of course, whether one is empathetic with the plight of Rodrigues and Garupe depends greatly upon how the somewhat arrogant, invasive exploits of the Catholic church are perceived. Certainly, from Scorcese’s tale, there can be no doubting that Rodrigues and Garupe’s intentions are wholly heart-felt and honourable, but Silence is not a conventional story of good against bad, but asks far deeper questions pertaining to whether it is right to impose another’s will upon others, and at what point it becomes morally wrong to do so, when to do so is to endanger the lives of others.
Silence’s pace is slow but not laboured, leaving ample space in which the viewer has time to reflect upon the many moral conundrums that Scorcese poses throughout the piece. Garfield puts in a weighty, sincere performance, whilst Adam Driver, and his atypical facial anatomy, is appropriately well cast – if rather underused – as his priestly-colleague, Garupe.
Harrowing, yet understated scenes of torture are occasional reminders of the consequences of following forbidden religious practices in a fiercely anti-Catholic land, and these combined with the atmospheric, evocative overcast scenes of wild and misty Japanese coast lines, lend Silence an eery yet visually beautiful quality.
Silence is a well-crafted piece of cinema without doubt, and clearly a piece close to Scorcese’s heart. Thankfully it’s also a film not making any obvious, cheap attempts to scoop accolades or vying for mass attention (excuse the pun), during this year’s Oscars season.
Watching it brought to mind Tim Robbins’ 1995 piece, Dead Man Walking, in which a convicted murderer on death row finds salvation through befriending a nun, whilst awaiting his execution. I recall being suitably moved by his plight and relieved at the peace and faith that he ultimately found through God.
Silence evoked no such emotions in me.
I suspect that a twenty-two year period having elapsed since then in which my own personal ‘truth’ has veered considerably from any such vague religious leanings, may well have played a large part in that, rather than it being any sort of slight on Scorcese’s film, which may be one of subjective content, but is nonetheless impressive and thought-provoking.
Devout though never ‘preachy,’ Silence will, unsurprisingly, split its audience into those that want to and those that are simply unable to fully engage with it, no matter how they try.