It is not very often that one encounters a film that is such hard work. Scorsese’s passion project Silence takes us on an excruciating journey of questioned faith and personal uncertainty, a path that leads our characters and the audience to find anything but clear answers. Does the title ‘Silence’ refer to the tortuous silence of God that these priests struggle with, or does it refer to the silent suppression of faith one must take in order to stay safe, to not be persecuted against? This epic journey of self-doubt, which Scorsese has been attempting to make since he finished 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, questions everything and answers nothing, brutally taking us on a spiritually charged narrative of anguish and uncertainty. What a frustrating and potentially painful experience this could be for the viewer, especially with the rather intimidating length of two hours and forty minutes, but Scorsese has created a film of rare intelligence and inquiry, a film that wishes to question the very hardest debates aimed at Christianity and the concept of religion itself. It is a brave, profoundly personal piece of art, unquestionably the most fascinating project Scorsese has completed in decades and a unique look into the anguishes and doubts of one of the most famous directors working today.
The premise is simple, and lifted straight from Shūsaku Endō’s book of the same name; two Portuguese priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) smuggle themselves into Japan to find their old mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has been apostatised of Catholicism through torture and is now living life as a Buddha. In Japan, the two Priests discover the horrifying acts of anti-Christian torture being performed around the land, such as crucifixion, being burned at the stake and a gruesome invention named simply ‘the pit’. The eventual finding of Ferreira reveals a man who has been beaten to the point of believing in nothing anymore; a grovelling and obedient tool for the Japanese inquisitors to now use at their will. Although Scorsese does not hesitate to show us the true horror of these acts of torture, the surprisingly charming Inquisitors (brilliantly played by Tadanobu Asano and Issey Ogata) refer to more daring psychological tricks to torture the priests, instead torturing innocent civilians and blaming their eventual deaths on the pride of the priests and their God. This is where the length and punishing nature of Silence really comes into the foreground; some moments are arguably unnecessarily long, and some have even gone so far as to label Scorsese’s lingering on such pain ‘torture porn’.
It is understandable to be overwhelmed by the film’s grief and anguish, which manifests itself not only through acts of violence but, as the title suggests, acts of silence as well. The priests, in the face of unimaginable cruelty, naturally start to become conflicted and confused as to the silence of their God, and there are no easy answers to explain such an absence. Is this silence on account of a lack of a God at all? Or is there a God but, more disturbingly, he refuses to even speak in the face of such cruelty? Briefly in the narrative, such a silence is broken for one of the priests, but it is a voice in his head imparting advice we have already seen him give farmers earlier in the story; can we take anything from such a moment? The silence of the film’s title becomes a horrible form of torture in its own right, with one of the characters asking “I pray but I’m lost…am I just praying to silence?” Whatever the audiences personal beliefs, Scorsese makes us feel the power and weight of that question, the personal pain of doubting what you have known to be true for so long, that you may be completely alone after all.
What to make of Scorsese’s repeated use of Christian imagery, and clear parallels between this and the story of Christ? Andrew Garfield may have appeared an odd choice for some, but his resemblance to the classical interpretation of Christ only draws stronger as the film continues, leading other characters to be clearly compared with Judas the Betrayer and Peter the Denier. Garfield’s priest continually sees the image of a portrait of Jesus as the film wears on, at one point seeing it in himself as he gazes into a pool of water. Can we trust these visions, or is this the fear of losing faith expressing itself in the form of madness? There is such monumental power in the final image of the film as well; for one it will reinforce the overwhelming power of faith, but for another it would signify the highest form of self-betrayal and delusion.
Although it may not be quite as flawless as these films, there are undeniable comparisons with the works of Coppola and Kurosawa. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is an obvious but deserved comparison, as both show a heroes journey through an unknown land to track down one of their own who has been lost to the culture (although the circumstances are wildly different). Kurosawa’s Ran is a more interesting comparison; Ran is a King Lear adaptation consistently obsessed with the cruelty and absence of the Gods, a world where man kills for sport and the Gods weep silently from above. Ran and Silence are interested in the same themes, but Ran is a much angrier piece of work, with its final shot showing an innocent victim of war alone and in peril, but being seemingly ignored by God.
Silence is more ambiguous in its anger then either of those previous works; this is a film that is blatantly tormented by the very questions it raises, and is fascinating just as a piece of work made by a man of religious faith willingly questioning everything they know. This is what I got out of Silence, a film of endless questions and few answers, but a film that invites discussion in an intelligent, thoughtful way, a film that overwhelms its flaws with the reading and debates that it inspires. It may not be the best movie that Scorsese has ever made, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating things he has ever released; I am unlikely to think so much and discover so little about a film for the rest of 2017. It is fascinating and yet frustrating by its very nature.