One of my favorite quotes goes, "God answers all prayers, but sometimes his answer is no." Granted, I first read it in an issue of Uncanny X-Men, but the sentiment is the same. It addresses God's silence in the wake of horrible hardship. We've often asked ourselves why God doesn't step in when there is so much suffering, often in his name. How deafening must that silence be to those who have committed their lives utterly to the faith? How crippling can that sense of abandonment be?
Martin Scorsese explores these questions with depth and purpose in Silence, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel, which was previously adapted into an austere 1971 movie. The director's epic 30-year journey to make this film a reality shows his level of commitment to the material, a punishing walk through the heart of darkness and man's spiritual frailty. This is not an easy watch, but then it probably shouldn't be. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are 17th-century Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garrpe, who go against the wishes of their church and venture off to Japan, which is killing Christians by the thousands. Their mission is to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who preceded them there and may have renounced his faith. In a misty, fog-filled prelude we see Fereira and his struggles while others of faith are tortured in a most grisly fashion.
Compared to the Hollywood sizzle of his most recent work, Scorsese seems eager to take on a stricter tale of spiritual dilemma. Silence, earning its title with a bare minimum of musical accompaniment, opens and closes with the buzzing, vibrant sounds of nature. For it is said that God can be found in nature, yet in Japan it's nature that transcends their belief in any other spiritual force. There's great beauty to be found in Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography, conjuring smoky jungle vistas that call back to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, a clear influence on Scorsese as well.
There's great relief and suffering that the fathers bring with them. The renewable spring of hope only serves to make the latter torment all the more unbearable, especially for Rodrigues. The early part of the film concerns their secretive attempts to sneak into the villages to find other Christians, who must worship in secret lest they be discovered by notorious Inspector Inoue (Issey Ogata). They are introduced to the mangy-haired, drunken reprobate Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who is both comic relief and spiritual foil for Rodrigues at every turn.
The Japanese go to brutal lengths to weed out any Christians in their midst, led by the notorious Inspector Inoue (Issey Ogata), who forces them to literally step on an image of Christ to denounce their faith. If the first half of the movie is Rodrigues and Gaarpe observing the strength of others, the second half puts the full weight of their burden on display, and is far more interesting as a result. Rodrigues is eventually faced with a terrible choice that drives the most complex, doctrinal part of the film. He can either become an apostate by denouncing Christianity publicly, or he can hold firm while others are tortured and killed right in front of him. How long can anyone cling to God's hope in the face of such horrible suffering, which Scorsese depicts in stark, cold fashion? This is a gruesome film in a lot of ways, but thankfully it isn't as enthusiastically violent as The Passion of the Christ or brazen as Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Clocking in at 160 minutes, it can be a trying experience, made tougher by frequent stretches of monotony.
The strength of Scorsese's convictions carries Silence through its weakest stretches, and you can sense the weight being lifted off his shoulders completing his greatest passion project. With help from Garfield and Driver's exhaustive performances, Scorsese forces us to feel the weight of their spiritual burden, so that we must ask if any of us would be worthy of carrying it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5