Silence: a test of faith

I confess I’m finding it difficult to review Silence, or at least, to give one clear and definitive statement for it. At times I was engrossed by it, and at others, I was weary of it. Its two hour forty minute duration may have something to do with that. In the end you are left with an epic, one that requires your attention and patience, and the way in which it rewards you will, I suspect, vary greatly depending on your religious views (or lack of them).

Silence is a far far cry from the fare director Martin Scorsese is usually associated with. There is violence here, but the essential struggle this film deals with is an internal one. It is about faith, but it is also, I thought, a story of colonisation and its arrogance. And if all of this sounds terribly serious, well it is.

The story is set in 17th century Japan. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) sail to Japan on a mission they know will be dangerous. They must find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard of for years, during a time when Japanese authorities have persecuted Christians, both missionaries and their converted.

Rodrigues and Garupe find friendly Christian villages, and at first they tend to them, in secret, and at night, to avoid the eye of authorities. The villagers speak their language because of their previous contact with missionaries.

Inevitably the two priests are discovered, but it is the villagers who are placed in physical jeopardy: they can renounce the Christian faith and live, or, if not, face death. And this means the two priests face a gruelling decision as to how to counsel the villagers. And as the story develops, their own fates are uncertain. That central question of faith and how it can be tested plays out throughout the rest of the film.

My sympathies very much lay with the locals, not only because of their plight, but also due to the performances of the actors, in particular Yoshi Oida as the village elder, and Yosuke Kubozuka as the Judas-like Kichijiro. Later, Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue, and Tadanobu asano, as his right hand man, represent the Japanese establishment with great skill.

The English actors take on roles which don’t necessarily bring a lot of sympathy to the table though. Liam Neeson, who also played a Jesuit priest n the 1986 film The Mission, in on screen for relatively little time but he is crucial to the story. Of the other two priests, Adam Driver is the more certain of his views and forthright in expressing them, while Andrew Garfield’s character is the more conflicted.

I found that presented a problem, because as Garfield’s Rodrigues is the central character, it becomes a big ask to follow his continual internal battles over such a lot of screen time. I did grow tired of Rodrigues, I admit.

I mentioned the colonialism angle to the story, which is something which emerged more strongly for me as the film progressed. What right did these missionaries have to come to another country, another culture, and try to convert (brainwash, some might say) its inhabitants? And then to leave the to a terrible fate when their own society rebels against them? It is a monumental display of cultural/religious arrogance. I don’t know to what extent Martin Scorsese wanted this to be an element of his film, but if like me you are not a Christian, then that becomes a stronger theme.

As for the imagery and appearance of Silence, yes, there is violence and cruelty depicted, but in between the films moves slowly and (literally) thoughtfully, as we hear the voice of Father Rodrigues grapple with the test of faith before him. And we are immersed in the landscape and people of Japan. The costumes and sets, and the lack of any soundtrack to speak of, transport us back several centuries.  And apart from the occasional quick-smart panning of the camera, and one shot walking across a village square (reminded me a bit of the famous nightclub walk in shot during Goodfellas) it didn’t feel like a Martin Scorsese film. So great credit to him for that, and for producing a thought provoking piece of cinema. You may or may not like it, or feel that it particularly speaks to you. I didn’t find it a wholly successful film for me, but I’m glad I saw it.

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