Mark Reviews Movies

Silence (2016)

SILENCE (2016)

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Ciarán Hinds

MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content)

Running Time: 2:41

Release Date: 12/23/16 (limited); 1/6/17 (wider); 1/13/17 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 5, 2017

Upon arriving at a Japanese village populated by Christians who must hide their religion, the two priests are offered food. They have made a long trek from Portugal, through China, to their destination. They sailed on a cramped ship and waited in a shoreline cave for what could have been hours before anyone came to retrieve them. Then there was the long walk to the village under cover of night. They are exhausted and possibly hungrier than they ever have been in their lives.

The food is a physical salvation for the holy men. As soon as it reaches his hands, each priest digs into the small bowl he has been offered, and as they are chewing their first mouthful, the two notice that the villagers are making the sign of the cross and bowing their heads. It takes just a moment for the two priests to register the scene before them, but the important thing is that it does need to register. What must, under other circumstances, be a reflex for them is not even a thought at this moment. The need to eat has completely obliterated the thought of prayer.

Silence is most noticeably about this conflict between the physical and the spiritual. The priests need to eat. The villagers, as well as other "hidden Christians" whom the priests encounter, desire tangible pieces of religious iconography—crosses, pendants, rosary beads. The Japanese government believes that Christians experiencing torture and witnessing the murders of their kind will put an end to that religion within the country. What the government did not expect was that the European priests, who helped to evangelize hundreds of thousands of the nation's population, would volunteer to undergo the torture. For them, it is a trial—a test that they know they must and will pass, because their very souls depend on it.

It is in this regard that the screenplay by Jay Cocks and director Martin Scorsese (based on Shûsaku Endô's novel) finds its deeper conflict. This is not just a battle between the internal and the external—one's faith being challenged by the pain and suffering of the world. It becomes, essentially, about the ways in which both one's internal life and the external forces of the world come into conflict with the eternal. Scorsese's film is not only about enduring suffering but also about why one chooses to do so. It's a film about martyrs, but it's also one that challenges the very notion of martyrdom—or at least the protagonist's understanding of that concept.

The central figure is Father Sabastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, in a powerful performance of great uncertainty), a priest of the Jesuit order. His mentor is Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary in Japan, whom we first see witnessing the horrific torture of his fellow holy men at a hot spring. The men are bound to posts, nearly in a crucified form, as their tormentors pour scalding water on their bare flesh. In a letter that Ferreira has written and that narrates the scene, he explains that these men have volunteered to be tortured so that they can be examples of the strength of their faith.

Years later in 1639, the letter has reached the order in Portugal, along with the rumor that Ferreira has apostatized. Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), another student of Ferreira, do not believe the news. They request to be sent to Japan in order to discover the truth about their teacher and, if the rumors are correct, to attempt to save his soul.

The story follows the priests as they tend to the Christians who remain in Japan. They remain under constant threat of torture or death because of their beliefs, meaning they must practice their faith in secret. At night, the priests offer Mass, baptism, and confession in a local village, hiding in a hut in the mountains during the day. The word of their presence eventually brings inquisitors from Nagasaki, who demand that any suspected Christian denounce the faith by desecrating a religious icon.

The plot is simple and straightforward: Rodrigues and Garupe seek Ferreira, hide from the inquisition, console the faithful in their challenges, and find their own faith tested. Once the inquisitors arrive, the central question becomes one of a choice between outward displays of religious devotion and basic survival. Rodrigues takes a pragmatic approach, telling his new flock that it is acceptable to step on an image of Jesus if it means saving their lives. Garupe is appalled by the very idea of it. There are rules to their belief system. Those rules are the reason the two priests are here. Rodrigues wonders why these people, whose faith is so strong that it fortifies his own, must endure such suffering.

Throughout the film, there are reasons to doubt if the locals understand this religion in the same way that the priests do—the devotion to icons, the way the priests' guide Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) uses confession as a way to wipe the slate clean before sinning again, a fundamental misunderstanding of Heaven, the language that's used to denote the divine (Their word for "God" is a combination of Latin and Japanese). This becomes an argument that the inquisitors use against the priests—to show that their work has been in vain. Rodrigues knows better. He can see their dedication to the faith, even if they do not understand it.

Once Rodrigues has to face his own inquisition, the film's examination of faith becomes far more complex than the age-old question of why an all-powerful deity would allow suffering. The key is that the grand inquisitor (Issei Ogata) does not threaten Rodrigues' life. He threatens the lives of others. The priest can save these people if he denounces his own faith.

The answer should be simple, but it is not. He would rather die for his faith, but that is not an option for him. There's a level of selfishness and self-inflation that Rodrigues does not comprehend within himself—that he believes his own faith is somehow more important than that of his followers (He repeatedly compares himself to Jesus, even seeing a visage of the divine replace his own face in a pool of water). Silence offers an ultimately profound meditation on the way that faith itself can get in the way of the essential purpose and greater meaning of that belief.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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