Martin Scorsese has talked about adapting Silence, Japanese writer Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel about Portuguese Jesuit priests risking their lives for their religion in 17th century Japan, since 1990. He’s discussed many never-to-be-realized projects in those 26 years — including biopics of Dean Martin, Alexander the Great, and George Gershwin — but never let Silence go. It’s the definition of a passion project for Scorsese, and it feels like a film he had to make, a potent distillation of a career spent considering the impossibility and inescapability of faith. It’s a tough movie, an elusive, haunting expression of devotion shaped by doubt and battered by the realities of life.
Opening in the fog-covered hills outside Nagasaki, Silence watches as Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) bears witness to the martyrdom of Catholic priests as they’re bound and slowly scalded to death by water from hot springs that the Japanese refer to as “Hell.” (It’s only the first of many tortures, physical and spiritual, we’ll see over the course of the film.) In the wake of an uprising against the Shogunate by Catholic converts, their religion has been outlawed and those who refuse to commit apostasy and renounce their faith by stepping on an icon of Christ face death. Ferreira watches the suffering of others, many of whom have asked for martyrdom to glorify their religion. but does not join it. Soon he’ll disappear, leaving rumors that he’s become an apostate and taken a Japanese wife.
This comes as a shock to Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), two Jesuits trained in the faith by Ferreira. From Macau they set out to find the true story of his fate, accompanied by Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a down-on-his-luck Japanese exile who speaks English but denies he still practices the faith of the priests who taught it to him.
Landing in Japan, they’re welcomed, quietly, by an underground network of Japanese Christians who shelter them and turn to them for guidance, having spent years practicing the faith without any clergy. But their piety comes at a horrible cost. From a distance, Rodrigues and Garrpe watch as the Shogun’s men arrest, torture, and put Christians to death. Having only read about martyrdom, they’re now witness to it. And between the screams it’s hard to find any glory in the act.
Silence is not, however, a simple tale of religious disillusionment. It’s about the hard questions religion demands we ask, how we respond when we understand there are no knowable answers, the reasonableness of walking away from religion, and the ways in which faith defies that reasonableness. The silence of the title is God’s and Scorsese has made a film about how we fill that silence.
The strength of Rodrigues and Garrpe’s faith waxes and wanes over the course of the film. It’s unquestioning before they set out on their mission. It falters as they grow hungry and desperate after witnessing horrors. It strengthens when they come to understand what it Christianity means to the faithful of Japan. It falters again when Rodrigues has to undergo his own trials after he and his companion go their separate ways.
Though Garfield and Driver begin as part of a shared story — Scorsese frequently includes them in the frame together, often huddling together for warmth — Silence eventually shifts its focus to Rodrigues’ personal struggle as he first fights back madness then deprivation then doubt at the rightness of his path. The film doubts with him, repeatedly showing the tremendous cost his adherence to the faith and, when Ferreira returns, giving him a dark mirror in which to reflect on his choices.
Much of the film rests on Garfield’s shoulders and he’s more than up to the task, conveying the subtle shifts in Rodrigues’ psyche, often without the benefit of dialogue. Neeson’s a particular stand-out here. When his character returns, it’s as if the actor has hollowed himself out. Everything we expect from Neeson on screen — sturdiness, confidence — has been scraped away. Kubozuka does standout work as well, making Kichijiro into a conflicted Judas who floats in and out of Rodrigues’ life, taking on a new meaning with each appearance.
The strongest presence, however, is Scorsese. Silence fits nicely beside The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, two equally unsparing looks at faith. It’s also a movie no other filmmaker could have made, even if it’s in many respects one of the most stylistically restrained films he’s made. Scorsese chooses his shots carefully and edits sparingly here, letting scenes play out to better capture moments of contemplation and suffering, and how one is sometimes unmistakable for the other. Scorsese watches as his characters grapple with faith, as if it’s an act with which he has a rare sympathy. It’s the work of a man who’s still struggling, and who’s found a kind of peace in understanding that the struggle never stops.