I don’t know what, exactly, to say about Silence. It is a movie framed by history twice over. It deals with a very specific part of Japanese history, but it is also framed by Scorsese’s history. Scorsese is a filmmaker known for his complicated relationship with his faith, and Silence is a movie that reflects these complicated feelings. It is also complicated because of the true history of two cultures clashing hundreds of years ago. Depending on your background, you may view one culture in the wrong and one in the right, or vice versa, or even both wrong or both right.
To its immense credit, Silence doesn’t shy away from these complicated issues. The movie takes place in the year 1639, and follows missionaries Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they set off to a Japan that has outlawed Christianity. Their goal is saving their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing and is “living as a Japanese”. The two priests arrive in Japan with their drunken and cowardly guide Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) they immediately meet secret Christians and begin to serve as priests to the underground community. Eventually both must confront the Japanese who have been tasked with keeping them out of the country and deal with a God who has possibly abandoned them on foreign soil.
Silence does a lot of things well. It is an aggressively untraditional film. Like all Scorsese outings, it is well shot, and well edited, has terrific costumes and some strong performances (in particular Liam Neeson does an impressive job with a small amount of screentime, though none of the actors are able to nail down anything approaching a believable accent and none of them look like they are Portuguese which, given Hollywood’s forever diversity problem, isn’t great).
It also poses genuine questions about faith, and what faith means, and what spreading Christianity really costs. It approaches every side with sympathy. The priests refuse to back down, often times costing the native Japanese Christians their lives as they stand in defiance of those who wish to root out the priests. One can’t help thinking if the priests had simply respected the nation’s’ original choices, no one would have to die. Characters bring this to the priests attention often. The Christian push is truly an imperial invasion, and I found myself leaving the theater rooting for the Japanese attempting to protect their nation from intruders and preserve their tradition. But Rodrigues and Garrpe also believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are saving the people of this nation. They refuse to stop, because they believe they are dooming the Japanese Christians to a torturous tenure on Earth, but leaving would doom them to an eternal damnation elsewhere. Even upon further thought, I am obviously a proponent of religious tolerance, and the Japanese suppressing their own people and outlawing Christianity is an injustice in its own right, even if it is an earnest attempt to reject imperialism.
The personal faith of the characters is handled with equal care. Kichijiro, the priest’s hapless guide, continuously struggles with his faith. He wants to be Christian, but crumbles under pressure – he is not willing to lay down his life for the cause. He apostatizes… too many times to count within the film, but each time he seeks out Rodrigues and begs that he listen to his confession. How many times can a priest forgive a man when he sees so many stronger peoples giving up their lives, when he is willing to give up his own life? How many times can God grant forgiveness? Infinite times, Rodrigues believes, but when he is the vehicle, he has difficulty.
It’s a shame, then, that I didn’t enjoy Silence. It’s probably in its DNA. I can’t imagine Scorsese watched the final cut and said to himself “people are going to walk out loving this”. But the film is too taxing. It’s too long. It’s too repetitive. It’s narrative is too broken, too prolonged, relies so heavily on ramming the same character into the same wall. A movie can offer meditation, it can be gruelling, and I’ll sit through it, but I don’t know if I can sit through two hours and forty minutes of just that. A careful trim may have improved the film immensely. But that’s not what Scorsese wanted to give us. The movie needs to put the characters through the same paces over and over again, so that the hope can diminish. While I didn’t enjoy it, from an objective point I don’t think this offense can be considered wholly negative.
I enjoyed thinking about the film more than I enjoyed watching it. Maybe that is okay too. Maybe three hours of too long movie is a fair price to pay for three more hours of genuine reflection and thought.
Silence was 6.5 out of 10 silent God(s).
-This movie keeps poorly superimposing a Renaissance painting of Jesus onto various surfaces. It’s pretty hilarious and feels like a strange weird 70s art house film thing.
-Indulging in a strange trope of biopics (which this isn’t…) the drama takes place in a limited time, before racing through years and years for the final fifteen minutes.
-One of my favorite television shows is Samurai Champloo, which deals with this time period from a modern Japanese perspective. It’s also hip hop popping and super cool, and probably one of the best approaches to episodic television ever.
-This movie is sort of silent, but totally silent.