After the debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese turns to the asceticism of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are “an army of two”, embarking upon a Conradian mission to “the ends of the Earth” where Christians are forced to renounce their faith on pain of torture and death. “We find our original nature in Japan,” declares Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit missionary who has reportedly gone native, turning his back on the cross and living as a Japanese with wife and family to match. Yet the young padres, proud and impetuous, refuse to believe that their former mentor has abandoned their God, or that Christianity cannot take root in “this swamp” of Japan. “Christ is here,” insists Rodrigues, “I just can’t hear him.”
Scorsese has been wrestling with Endō’s novel (first filmed by Masahiro Shinodain 1971) for decades, and his labour of love has resulted in a film that is both loving and laborious. Like its subjects, Silence often stumbles as it strives to touch eternal truths, occasionally testing our patience. But it’s clearly Scorsese’s most personal work since Mean Streets, addressing issues of faith and doubt (alongside examinations of cultural and political monotheism) in a manner that has something of the quizzical passion of Dreyer and the earthy grit of Pasolini.
Significantly, Scorsese’s films opens and closes to the sounds of nature, which, we are told, is too fundamental to Japanese culture to be usurped by alien Christianity. What little music there is remains as distant as the voice of God, drowned out by sotto voce conversations or the distant peal of a chapel bell. The visuals are painterly, with only a couple of energetic sweeps past the wooden slats of a prison cage reminding us of the frenzied urgency of Goodfellas or Casino. Instead, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjures misty underworld vistas, Taiwan doubling handsomely for Japan in a series of arresting devotional tableaux. Even horrific scenes of Christians on poles being scalded with boiling water or drowned in a raging sea are shot with a peculiar serenity, the suffering somehow magnified by the placidity of the camera.
In the lead roles, Garfield and Driver (respectively graduates of the Spider-Man and Star Wars franchises) bring mainstream appeal, although wobbly Portuguese accents threaten to undercut the solemnity of their English-language dialogue. With his angular features Driver catches the eye, but it is to Garfield’s leonine locks that Scorsese is drawn, the handsome face of Rodrigues evoking beatific images of Christ in whose likeness the padre presumes to style himself. No wonder he sees a vision of Jesus when gazing at his own reflection in a stream. As for Neeson, he played a Jesuit priest in The Mission, but his late-in-the-day reappearance here is more evocative of his turn as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, reminding us that Kurosawa was always George Lucas’s guiding light.
The real stars, however, are the Japanese cast, from Yōsuke Kubozuka’s enigmatic wretch, Kichijiro, who becomes Rodrigues’s own personal Judas, to Yoshi Oida’s devout elder Ichizo, to whose village these priests bring both salvation and suffering. As a smiling, silver-tongued interpreter, Tadanobu Asano is a superb foil to the inquisitor, Inoue, played with fly-swatting menace by a wheedling Issey Ogata. A scene in which Inoue appears to physically deflate is a masterclass in comedy acting, while his observations on “the persistent love of an ugly woman” are delivered in a manner that is amusing, insulting, and incisive in equal measure.
“The weight of your silence is terrible,” Rodrigues whispers to God, and it’s a credit to Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks (his collaborator on The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York) that this weight feels real and tangible. Silence may not possess the popular appeal of The Last Temptation of Christ or the breathtaking beauty of Kundun but it has the strength of its convictions, with Scorsese’s faith in the material sustaining the film’s soul even when its cinematic flesh is weak.