REVIEW: Silence [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 161 minutes | Release Date: December 23rd, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Martin Scorsese
Writer(s): Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese / Shûsaku Endô (novel)

“An army of two”

A labor of love twenty-five years in the making, Silence is tailor-made for Martin Scorsese‘s sensibilities as a person and director. Not only does it comment on faith and therefore his personal struggles being someone who contemplated going down the road towards priesthood, it also provides similar subject matter and plot progression to his most famous religion-based drama The Last Temptation of Christ. This epic journey is ostensibly the last temptation of Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit priest striving to cultivate Catholicism in Japan at a time when it was illegal to practice while also searching for his mentor rumored to have forsaken their Lord. It asks whether he is strong enough to die for his beliefs and consequently whether he’s strong enough to live despite them.

Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, the film is a fictionalized account of Italian missionary Giuseppe Chiara (arrested in 1643 before dying forty years later in Edo) and the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira (a famous “fallen priest” who renounced his faith due to torture). Part of the novel is written as an epistolary of journal entries from Rodrigues (the Chiara character) and letters from those with knowledge of the main narrative. Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks retain this aspect with Garfield’s priest narrating via letters written to his superior in Portugal, Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), and later a Danish tradesman with a keen eye for detail. We hear his thoughts—hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses—as his task grows ever more painful.

Rodrigues and his companion Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) partake in these trials under their own volition thanks to their unwavering loyalty to mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They treat it as faith that the man who brought them closer to God would never yield to the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata‘s Inoue). Others might call it ego and hubris—believing so blindly that their religion and God is more righteous than the rest to forget their Earthly forms and the physical suffering mortality provides. First they must combat that humanity (their joy in finding the hidden Christians led by Yoshi Oida‘s Ichizo and Shin’ya Tsukamoto‘s Mokichi tempered by their solitude and frustration in secrecy) and then their spirituality to discern whether martyrdom truly supersedes humility. Is failure synonymous with defeat?

We watch as these two priests try to reconcile this question. To them faith is everything—they would die for God and die happy knowing they did all they could to help spread the word to far-flung nations without it. The men hunting them down can say that Christianity simply cannot take root on their island, but Rodrigues knows it once did. He cannot pretend Christians didn’t live in peace before the religion was outlawed in favor of the more entrenched practice of Buddhism. The religion didn’t fail these men and women who brought Jesus into their hearts. The Japanese government did through persecution and genocide, forcing them into hiding. But herein lays a major contradiction: doesn’t conversion by definition purport that other ways are wrong?

Every religion’s major flaw is the concrete nature that says its God is the true God. Believers become so ingrained with this egotism that they will be saved and others won’t. They cultivate a superiority complex ultimately making them as ruthless as their enemies. The Jesuits weren’t killing practicing Buddhists in this case, but you cannot deny the volume of blood the Catholic Church has on its own hands courtesy of different historical points in time. Rodrigues and Garupe are as unmoving as Inoue; they just don’t go as amorally far to show it. And it’s not as though missionaries seek to learn the culture and traditions of the countries they “invade.” Scorsese takes special pains to relay that most don’t even attempt to learn the language.

What Silence ultimately delivers is full-scale war. One side seeks to destroy physical bodies and the other spiritual identity. The Catholics are strangers holding onto hope that God pushed them into this endeavor. But isn’t it possible that their failure is actually the lesson He strives to teach? Could it be that He sacrifices the victims of this genocide to open the eyes of his flock and show how they’ve become power-hungry and sanctimonious? How they’ve become oppressors? Faith isn’t about death. It’s not about the Paradise you work towards achieving, but the Paradise this life could become if we weren’t so hell-bent on dictating its terms and excluding outsiders. The Jesuits are uninvited and uninterested in anything but their agenda. In some respects Rodrigues is the villain.

I’d argue we don’t need as much hardship and struggle as shown to ready us for the wonderful debates between Rodrigues and Inoue and those held between Rodrigues and Ferreira. But just like in The Last Temptation of Christ, we do need to watch the character’s journey towards understanding—something that may take longer since he’s so entrenched in his beliefs. I’m not a religious person and I think that helps in my enjoyment of films like these. It lends objectivity someone like Rodrigues doesn’t possess until he’s broken down and stripped of his authority. You must be able to see how similar both sides are removed from the violence and martyrdom to acknowledge the true complexities of the situation. Both sides fight for themselves, not God.

That 1988 film saw the Devil talking to Christ, presenting the easy way out in order to extinguish his faith. Silence conversely lets God speak to Rodrigues by explaining how the path of suffering isn’t the one that ends in death. Death is swift regardless of the time taken for it to occur (and the bloodletting in pits shown as Japan’s torture of choice here is long and painful). Death is easy because it challenges the body and not the soul. There’s more sacrifice in living so that others can live than there is in dying for a cause and letting others die too. Rodrigues is made to watch men and women perish as he would and he mourns them. If this were truly the way, he’d applaud.

This simple fact of guilt and regret proves what he’s doing is worthless. This idea that he must steadfastly give his health and sanity to God alone is insane. The character of Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka)—a guide and constant stalker seeking penance—is therefore the most important inclusion in the entire story because he understands death comes for everyone. You don’t need to let it take you early because everything you can accomplish only happens in life. His guilt is real because he has acted when others did not. He saved himself to work for God in life and earn his forgiveness. Kichijiro refused to make himself a false idol like one could argue Rodrigues has. God is in him and guides him. He isn’t God.

For all Rodrigues’ stalwart rigidity, Catholicism proves to be exactly what detractors say. It’s a cleansing upon death to wash away sin, not an excuse to point out the sins of others. This priest questions his devotion because Kichijiro continues to let him down (not God) and ask to give confession. He questions his own fidelity because deep down he wants to refuse this wretched soul what he must provide. This is the lesson Rodrigues must learn—the humility to accept he isn’t right. But neither is the Inquisitor. If anyone is it’s Kichijiro (and perhaps Ferreira although this is harder to judge since Neeson plays him like a prisoner acting and speaking from a script rather than a pure apostate). Kichijiro is cognizant of his fallibility.

The performances that are getting all the attention earn it from their deep-rooted vigor like Driver as the unwavering follower and Ogata as the stone-cold civil servant doing his duty. Tadanobu Asano‘s interpreter excels at his smugness, Neeson brilliantly expresses a duality of uncertainty and acceptance rather than conversion, and Garfield will make you cry thanks to his passionate portrayal of a man at a crossroads he didn’t realize he’d approached. But for my money the true star is Kubozuka’s Kichijiro. It’s easy to laugh at his actions—Scorsese does present him as comic relief at times—but we do so because we know him. He is us. He is someone who believes in immortality but knows mortality comes first. He is human.

Silence is therefore a great piece of art not because it documents a harrowing period of history or because it shows religion’s powerful hold. It is great because it uses those things to show how ignorant they are to life. In the end the only faith we need is faith in ourselves. We must become aware of our humanity and empathy, tear down the walls we create in God’s name and know we are equals. The Japanese shouldn’t have killed their Christians and the Jesuits shouldn’t have arrived thinking themselves saviors. Both sides have a pile of bodies underneath them and both attribute it to their God. Only Kichijiro’s pile is his to lament. Only Kichijiro is pure enough to know his actions are forever his own.

[1] (L-R) Adam Driver as Father Garupe and Andrew Garfield as Father Sebastião Rodrigues the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] Issey Ogata as Inoue in the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] (Left) Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira in the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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