I was going to joke that the plot of Silence is “Spider-Man and Kylo Ren try to rescue Qui-Gon Jinn,” but the joke fell flat after actually seeing the movie. Silence is Martin Scorsese‘s latest, a stunning adaption of Shusaku Endu’s novel of the same name. Set in 1600s’ feudal Japan, it follows the somewhat dramatized story of two Jesuit priests in search of a third, lost member of their order during the brutal persecution of the Church in that era. No laughing matter–a few comedic scenes aside–Silence examines the limits of a man’s faith against the limits of other men’s cruelty.
The name “Nagasaki” immediately calls to mind the atomic bomb. However, the area is also less famously known as the center of Christian persecution in Japan, where the fledgling Church was driven underground and many of its members and priests openly killed. Silence opens by recounting the story of Father Christoval Ferriera (Liam Neeson), a priest who witnessed his flock tortured by the Japanese. Years later, Ferriera is rumored to have apostatized and embraced Japanese culture. Two idealistic priests, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrape (Adam Driver) believe it to be false, and embark on a quest to secret themselves into Japan, tend to the underground church, and recover Ferriera.
The story then becomes a matter of faith – mainly Rodrigues’ – with Driver’s Garrape disappearing partway into the story only to reappear at a later, tragic moment. For the priests–primarily Garfield’s Rodrigues–faith and courage under pressure is easier said that done. At the film’s outset, they are men of high ideals, aware that hardship is to come but resolute that their mission to imitate and spread Christ will keep them strong. But speaking of hardship and actually experiencing it are different matters, and the men who think they have Christlike resolve forget that Christ’s path wasn’t easy.
Scorsese, a lifelong Catholic, unsurprisingly makes heavy use of Christian iconography and metaphor throughout the story, though perhaps not as nakedly obvious as one would think. Garfield’s Father Garrape struggles with taking on not just the role of Christ, but his very identity, even as he rages against his own human instincts in a land where poor Japanese peasants practice their faith in secrecy and fear. He struggles with hunger, desperately tearing into food before realizing that his flock has stopped to say grace. He struggles with obedience, as he breaks an admonishment to stay hidden by day, only to risk being caught by Japan’s soldiers. He struggles with patience, as he is repeatedly worn down by a man of weak faith (Yosuke Kubozuka) who returns to confess again and again. And most frequently, he struggles with pride, as he increasingly sees himself as being in imitation of Christ (the sight of his long hair and beard in a pond openly recalling an icon of Jesus).
It is taking on the role of Christ that becomes Garrape’s largest challenge, mostly because Scorsese inverts it from traditional Christian expectations. Suffering is not presented as easy, but traditional martyr stories and the tale of Christ himself at least make it seem doable. Images of Christian martyrs throughout the film are hard, but Catholic audiences will at least find them as familiar as any Sunday school teaching. The films challenges its viewers by tugging at the heart: Christ took on the pain of others, but what would Christ had done if others had been pained for him?
The Japanese warlord Inoue Masahige (Issey Ogata) enters into a contest of wills against Rodrigues and the underground Church: Masahige comes to appreciate that a martyr will readily give up his life, but if others are tortured in his stead? Submit and you may live; refuse, and others will die. Thus, Rodrigues is constantly worn down by the torment of others, poor Japanese peasants who die in his place–some Christian, many not, because Masahige simply doesn’t care who needs to be hurt in order to compel submission. Rodrigues struggles to find what Jesus would do, but as the film’s title suggests, God provides no immediate answers.
Silence presents a challenging attempt at storytelling as it literally clashes East against West, the ideals of a seemingly passive creator God against the naturalistic religions of Japan. Some might fear that Silence is a “white savior” movie, and it’s important to keep the film in context: it’s based on real events and a book by a native Japanese author, dramatized to be sure, but still as reflective of a cruel period in world history as was Twelve Years a Slave and other films showing man’s cruelty. Garfield’s Rodrigues, in arguing whose religion is correct, reminds Masahige that the truth is universal. Silence, painfully, shows that the human capacity to hurt others is universal as well.
But, moreover, even as Silence pits East against West in story, it merges them in terms of filmmaking. Silence gives us the rare treat of a noted American filmmaker adapting the seminal work of a noted Japanese author. Further, it blends the casts of opposing cultures as well, with three famed American actors pitted against an Asian cast that American audiences may largely be unfamiliar with. (Tadanobu Asano played Hogun in the Thor movies, but viewers are likely not going to be shouting “Asgardian!” the same way they’ll remember Adam Driver from The Force Awakens.) For all the talk of underrepresentation of Asians in American films, Silence makes an impressive inroad against that deficiency.
A late, limited December release, Silence is clearly Scorsese’s entry into the Oscar race. It’s already won some minor notable accolades (the American Film Institute naming it one of 2016’s ten best films–sorry, Deadpool) and will probably be a buzzworthy film come February. Theist or not, this film will challenge audiences’ notions of faith and courage and is worth a look.
Rating: Five rosary beads out of five.
Silence opens January 13, 2016. Thanks to Allied Washington for the tickets.