Faith is a curious thing.
It is a fascinating concept, even (and perhaps especially) for those who lack it or wrestle with it. Pure and untempered faith in the face of a turbulent (and occasionally hostile) world is intriguing. It is something that many long to understand, even if it eludes them. Silence is very much a meditation (or an extended monologue) on the nature of religious belief playing out as a set of conversations and moral dilemmas. Characters wrestle with doubt and uncertainty, and particularly about what their faith means to them.
Silence is not a masterpiece or an epic. It is not one of Martin Scorsese’s major works, despite the energy and conviction with which he invests it. It is the weakest film from the director in a very long time, although that sounds very much like praising with faint criticism. Silence is a little too invested in its own dialogue with itself, as delivered through a series of monologues and occasionally through conversation between characters. Silence looks beautiful, but it often feels a little bit like a stunning visual companion to a book on tape.
And yet, in spite of all of this, there is an endearing earnestness to the film. Silence feels like the product of a long and considered reflection on the nature of faith and its place in the world. It never lacks for ambition or vision, playing as a two-and-a-half hour parable about suffering and transcendence. Silence is more interesting than successful, but that is largely because it is so very interesting.
Silence is very much an ironic title. The film is bookended with two cuts to black, allowing the ambient noises of the world to flood into the film. Leaves rustle and insects hum, rain falls and puddles splash. It is very much a literal expression of the moral of this most religious fable, the notion that God speaks to those who are willing to listen through the world itself. It is also something of a warning about the direction that Silence will take, advising audiences to expect anything but.
Silence was notably adapted from the best-selling novel by Shūsaku Endō. It is the third adaptation of the source material, and a movie that Scorsese has sought to make for more than twenty years. Scorsese famously read the novel during his visit to Japan to appear in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams as Vincent Van Gogh. The novel is told through a series of letters and notes dispatched from seventeenth century Japan. In those notes, the characters narrate the plot, but they also meditate upon what faith means to them and to the world at large.
A lot of this internal dialogue would be difficult to translate to screen. Scorsese venerates the work. Silence devotes extended passages to characters monologuing over action as it happens. Father Cristóvão Ferreira talks at length about the torture inflicted upon Japanese Christians as that torture is depicted, wondering how this could be. Father Sebastião Rodrigues contemplates what all of this means as he witnesses first-hand the devotion of the Christians living in secret among these small Japanese communities.
Only some of this dialogue is exposition; most of that exposition is dedicated to explaining the intricacies of the torture that the Grand Inquisitor has concocted for the Christian converts. Most of it is instead internal dialogue about the way that this world works. Characters question their fate, wonder why God allows others to suffer, doubt their own expressions of belief. These are concepts that are very hard to express through action or conversation, because they are so interior to the characters.
There is an argument that this is a problem of adaptation, that Silence is simply not a work suited to a cinematic adaptation. This is not a bad thing by any measure, some material works better in a given medium than in any other. Watching Silence occasionally feels like a test of Scorsese’s faith, his commitment to translating the work from one medium to another without sacrificing so much of what appealed to him about the source material. The result is unwieldy and occasionally inelegant. However, it also exerts an interesting pull.
There is in some small sense a fear that Scorsese is being too respectful here. Silence is a meditation on doubt and faith, much like The Last Temptation of Christ before it. However, it lacks the same energy or vigour that defined the earlier work. Indeed, it is perhaps telling that Silence opened with a screen in Vatican City. This is not a film that will offend anybody. It is not a movie that is particularly bold in its challenges. Even its depictions of horrific torture feel curiously distant and academic.
Then again, this may well be the point. A lot of the action in Silence happens at a distance. Scorsese repeatedly positions the camera as if inviting the viewer to step into the shows of (the possibly absent) God. Suffering is glimpsed from within caves, where bodies look like rag dolls. Repeatedly, the camera stares directly down upon Father Rodrigues as if in silent judgement; Scorsese pans up from a shot of Rodrigues crossing the East China Sea to the sun and the cloud overhead. Later, even as Rodrigues is caged, the audience looks down upon him.
There is something appealing in this strange disconnect. In some respects, Silence plays like The Wolf of Wall Street. Whereas Scorsese’s last film moved at a mile a minute, Silence is a much more relaxed and steady experience. Scorsese remains one of the best living directors, even in his more guarded and cautious moments. For the first hour of the film, Japan seems perpetually clouded by mist and steam. It makes sense that Father Rodrigues would feel lost in this confusing wilderness.
That said, Scorsese’s direction weakens significantly in the film’s second half. As Rodrigues finds himself challenged by the local authorities, the scope of Silence narrows. The bulk of the film’s last hour-and-a-half unfolds upon a handful of sets. While the movie’s production design is lavish, there is only so much that Scorsese can do to make these cages and courtyards seem interesting. There are only so many ways that the screen can be divided by wooden bars to frame characters and objects in interesting compositions.
Silence plays its themes relatively broad. However, there is a truth that can found in that broadness. Silence is a film fascinated by the nature of faith and the relationship between believer and belief. That dynamic can often seem mysterious or confusing to those who doubt or question, wondering what compels a person to go to such extreme lengths in pursuit of what they believe. This devotion is challenging, even for non-believers. Such conviction is at once terrifying and intoxicating, both because of things that it makes possible.
Unfolding in sixteenth century Japan at a point when the ruling class have outlawed Christianity, Silence touches upon the connection between faith and suffering. Christians are dragged before interrogators and inquisitors, forced to deface depictions of Jesus Christ. In one very nice touch, one of these recreations features a face of Christ has been worn smooth by so many people stepping upon it. The interrogators repeatedly downplay the importance of this desecration. “This is just a formality,” they insist repeatedly.
In a way, it is. One of the big questions broached by Silence concerns this challenge. Whatever about the historical practices of the institution, the belief system of the Catholic Church is built upon the concepts of compassion and forgiveness. The Gospel teaches that faith cannot be unwavering and absolute, and that God knows what is in a believer’s heart. As such, why is it such a challenge to deface a depiction of the Christ? If it will save lives and prevent torture, isn’t the ethical obligation to renounce the Christ in public?
Silence understands this intrinsically. Early in the film, one villager asks Rodrigues what he should do when the authorities lay the depiction of the Christ on the ground before him. “Trample,” Rodrigues advises, understanding that belief is more than just a public show of faith. However, Silence also understands why the moral calculus is not so straightforward. Despite his advice to that villager, Rodrigues refuses to make that same compromise himself. He refuses to renounce his own faith to save the lives of innocents.
In its strongest moments, Silence dares to question this commitment. Perhaps, it implies, the suffering inflicted upon believers is a validation unto itself. Early in the film, Father Cristóvão Ferreira discusses the brutality inflicted upon captured believers. “Some of them asked to be tortured,” he reflects, confused. Threatened with torture or death, Rogrigues vows, “The Church is built upon the blood of martyrs.” However, Silence suggests that this torture and martyrdom is only somewhat related to Christianity. Instead, the movie suggests, it is a signifier of faith.
Upon his arrival in the strange land, Rodrigues wonders about the Japanese understanding of Christianity. He muses whether they truly understand the belief system or whether they have merely invested themselves in “tangible symbols of the faith.” He passes out crucifixes and rosary beads as if they are holy relics, and the locals seem honoured just to hold them. These little crosses and trinkets become physical representations of something impossible and impenetrable. Silence wonders if the scars and bruises and cuts form something similar.
Repeatedly over the course of the film, Rodrigues likens himself to Christ. “I imagine Your Son on the cross,” he narrates as he takes a sip of sea water, comparing it to vinegar. When he discovers there is a reward of three hundred pieces of silver for his capture, he reflects, “Judas only received thirty.” Gazing into a pool of water, he sees Jesus Christ staring back at him. There is a recurring sense that this whole blood mission is a form of validation for Rodrigues. “What have I done for Christ?” he asks. “What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?”
It is in these moments that Silence works best, when it dares to ask how all of this horror can be justified. The film does not directly accuse God, suggesting that He is very much present. Instead, the film suggests that the problem lies with man. It is man who cannot hear God. It is man who justifies suffering by appealing to a higher cause. It is man who seeks vindication in service of a God that does not directly ask for this sacrifice. “The price for your glory is their suffering,” the Grand Inquisitor accuses Rodrigues. He has a point, even as he inflicts that suffering.
And yet, in spite of all this, Silence never feels like a cynical film. It acknowledges the horrors that are inflicted (and received) in service of higher ideals, but it also suggests that true faith can never be broken or lost. At one point in the film, Rodrigues finds himself conversing with a “fallen priest” on matters of belief. “You said Our Lord,” Rodrigues points out. His companion denies it, but there is some small suggestion that faith is best nurtured in a private and personal manner than through grand spectacle and public devotion.
In some respects, this reflects the historical reality. Christianity survived in Japan by going underground. Following these incredibly brutal attempts at suppression, Catholicism become an oral tradition on the islands of Japan. Passed down from generation to generation, the faith was transformed and distorted through each iteration. It became less about the literal and absolute fidelity to the Christian faith, and more about finding a satisfying means of expression for those ideas that resonated with the believers.
Silence is very much a personal work for director Martin Scorsese. It is a thoughtful and meditative film. It does not cohere as strongly as it might, with Scorsese feeling too faithful to his source material. Unlike the Japanese Christians it seeks to honour, Silence proves too reluctant to revise or reimagine, to rework and reinvent. The result is intriguing and unsatisfying, like faith with doubt creeping around the edges.