We may never see the likes of Martin Scorsese again in American cinema. He’s the embodiment of what Orson Welles should have become: the master auteur and leader of a New Hollywood movement who nimbly balances fan-friendly and money-making gangster flicks, psychological thrillers, and edgy character dissections with highly personal and profound films. While his American New Wave contemporaries like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola have migrated to effects-driven sequels and semi-retirement, Scorsese continues to produces masterworks like Silence, one of the most deeply spiritual and religiously layered films ever made.
It’s an arduous labor of love for Scorsese, who sought for more than two decades to make this adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed 1966 novel about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan to investigate the torture and reported apostasy of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), guided by a drunken fisherman named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), arrive on the Shimabara Peninsula to find persecuted yet devout Kakure Kirishitans, who greet their visitors as “saviors.”
Following the Shimabara Rebellion, the shogunate is brutally ferreting out Christians. Led by a grand Inquisitor (Issey Ogata), the samurai’s initial plan of torturing Jesuit priests either to death or into apostasy has proven ineffective; it only made them martyrs. Once Rodrigues is captured, he learns their more diabolical strategy is to force priests to renounce Christianity as a means of preventing the torture and execution of other Japanese Christians—members of their own flock.
Written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, this Conrad-esque journey into the heart of darkness achieves the almost unimaginable aim of both sanctifying spiritual devotion and questioning religious dogma and idolatry. You admire Rodrigues’s steadfast dedication to his Christian principles, while joining in his wonder at a silent God who would allow the oppression of his followers. The Buddhist persecutors are savage in their methods, but so were the Christian crusaders who marauded through Europe and Asia centuries before.
The film’s 160-minute running time affords a contemplative exploration of the complex, often contradictory issues at play, as well as the methodical brainwashing of Rodrigues. His debates with the Inquisitor and his erudite Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) are akin to the mind games between Jesus and the Pharisees. Indeed, Scorsese’s Christ allegory is obvious and intentional—in Kichijiro, he again examines the Judas character that has run throughout his oeuvre.
Silence’s set design sometimes shows signs of the film’s relatively modest production budget. And it’s worthwhile to raise an eyebrow at casting an American, a Brit, and a Northern Irish actor in three Portuguese roles. These quibbles do not dilute the infectious power of a film that, foremost among many profound themes, tests the Christian tenet that mere belief is the sole path to salvation. As its name suggests, Silence provides few definitive answers. That’s not its intent. The questions it raises embolden the value of faith, but only by chastening its blind, thoughtless application.