Faith is not an easy thing to have. In today’s world, especially in a developed country like the United States, most people like to think that everyone is free to hold and express their religious beliefs. These freedoms are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. But in reality, those protections may not always lead to the intended outcome.
For example, Muslim people have experienced a great deal of discrimination in recent years. In other parts of the world, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and members of every other religious group experience the same persecution because of their beliefs. In 17th century Japan, Christians faced an Inquisition, in which they were hunted down and forced to reject the religion on pain of death. Martin Scorsese’s Silence examines the conflict between keeping the faith in a setting in which no one is being killed and the use of faith, pragmatically speaking.
Silence first premiered in Rome—a fitting setting—on Nov. 29, with a wide release on Jan. 13. Scorsese claims that he has been working on this passion project for the last 25 years. The film takes place in Southern Japan, where Jesuit Catholic missionaries have been working to bring Christianity to the Japanese farmers and fishermen. A Portuguese Jesuit priest in Macau has received word that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith in the face of the persecution of Christians by the Japanese government. He relays this information to Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), two of Father Ferreira’s former pupils.
As incredulous followers, Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe set out to find Father Ferreira and clear him of this slander. Neither are prepared for the horrors plaguing Japan when they arrive. Sitting in the theater, the audience is hardly prepared for it either until the first scene of the movie plays. Silence opens with the brutal mass torture of Japanese-Christians being witnessed by Father Ferreira. Their torturers have crucified them next to springs of boiling water and are continuously pouring the water down the bodies of the victims, leaving their skin red with burns. Father Ferreira watches on in horror while being told that he could save them all if he would only apostatize himself (renounce his beliefs).
For such a short title, Silence is a long movie. It’s truly an epic, spanning two hours and 41 minutes of real time, while the story is spread out over decades in the lives of the characters. This runtime is par for the course with Scorsese at this point, especially considering it isn’t even his longest feature film (Gangs of New York takes it with three hours and 36 minutes). Silence is definitely a “slow burn.” The movie makes no apologies for its length, and spends all the time it needs getting where it wants to go.
The characters drive the movie forward, with most of the cast turning in a great performance. Two characters stand out amid all the rest. The first is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a Japanese peasant. He acts as the guide for Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe in getting them to the islands where Father Ferreira was last seen. He was a Japanese Christian, converted by earlier Jesuit visits to the country, but he considered himself one no longer. Toward the beginning of the inquisition, the Japanese government had captured him and his family, who are also Christians. They had threatened to burn them alive if they did not step on a fumi-e, a carved image of Christ, to show that they had no respect or faith in the religion and were willing to soil an image of Christ. Every member of his family refused to step on it, instead choosing to martyr themselves, except for Kichijiro, who watched as his family burned alive. His arduous beliefs clash magically with the brutality he must endure.
The second is Governor Inoue (Issei Ogata). He is head of the inquisition in Nagasaki, where Father Ferreira lives and where Father Rodrigues eventually travels to. He is the villain of the movie, and he plays his role well. He and Father Rodrigues often have conversations about the nature of Christianity in Japan. This leads to the most compelling aspect of his character. Clearly, Father Rodriguez is the protagonist, and is who the audience roots for. But taking the situation into account, some of the points made by Governor Inoue actually make sense. Father Rodrigues’ responses to Inoue’s arguments seem hollow in the face of the suffering that he has the power to stop.
These conversations, and the events in the latter half of the movie bring the main conflict of the movie into focus. The answer to this problem is what Silence drives at for so long. Father Rodrigues sees the suffering of these “innocents,” yet he does not act. He is presented with the option to free them all if he would only apostatize, the act itself being “only a formality” according to the Japanese themselves. Rodrigues’ inner conflict is palpable by the audience. He is a man who has devoted his life to serving God. He cannot denounce Christianity. But what is he to do? The Japanese will not kill him, so he cannot martyr himself. Instead they will kill innocent Christians, whom he has the power to save. Is his faith more important than their lives? His prayers bring the title of the movie into frame – he receives nothing but silence in return.
Silence is not an a “fun” movie. It is very long, and at times quite slow. But it is beautiful, it is compelling, and it is a great movie. Silence leaves the viewer with questions that don’t have easy answers. It is one man’s religious journey through life, and it is a difficult journey. In the end, the path toward faith is one that many people struggle with, and Silence shows the power that faith can have for those who believe.
Featured Image By Paramount Pictures