Martin Scorsese’s 26-year-long odyssey to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence has finally come to fruition. It is the 17th Century, and Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Hinds) receives word that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan, has renounced his faith after withstanding years of torture. Ferreira’s young pupils Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver) journey to Japan in search of Ferreira, unconvinced by this report of Ferreira’s apostasy. Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to be eagerly welcomed by the village of Tomogi, comprised of Japanese Christians who have been practising their faith in secret. The two priests and their followers find themselves hunted by Inoue Masashige (Ogata), a samurai whom the villagers call “the Inquisitor”. Rodrigues and Garupe become targets of the Tokugawa shogunate’s persecution, while still searching for their teacher Ferreira.
Endō’s 1966 novel is considered to be among the most important pieces of 20th Century Japanese literature, and was adapted into film in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda. Scorsese bought the rights to the novel in 1988 and had been trying to get the project off the ground since 1990. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese’s films The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. Scorsese and Cocks continuously revised the screenplay over 15 years. It’s evident that Silence is a labour of love for the director – to prevent the budget from ballooning, Scorsese and many of the cast and crew, including actors Driver and Neeson, worked for minimum pay. Filmed near Taipei in Taiwan, Silence’s period setting is painstakingly realised. Rodrigo Pietro’s cinematography conveys a sense of foreboding, while also giving the landscape a beguiling beauty.
Many reviews have described Silence as “punishing”, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a better adjective. The film is filled with uncompromising scenes of torture and at 160 minutes long, is anything but a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. The plight of the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians”, is a piece of history that’s not widely known. Stories of devotees suffering in the name of their faith are inherently compelling, but where involvement in the story is concerned, one’s personal beliefs do play a part. While Silence has its powerful moments, and is, from a technical standpoint, masterfully crafted, there are long stretches of the film that are soporific and unengaging. Those unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular might struggle to find an emotional foothold, even given the depths of pain experienced by the characters in the film.
Garfield and Driver deliver tangibly committed performances, Rodrigues’ journey being an especially harrowing one. Rodrigues is the more patient of the pair, while Garupe is more impulsive, and the first act gives Garfield and Driver several opportunities to play off each other. Later on, most of Garfield’s interactions are with Tadanobu Asano, who plays the unnamed translator to Inoue Masashige. Rodrigues makes a spirited defence of his faith and Garfield sells the emotional and physical torment he undergoes. Despite all this, it is sometimes difficult to relate to the character because he seems to be defined solely by his faith, and his denial of self makes Rodrigues, purely in storytelling terms, less human.
Veteran actor Ogata, known for playing Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, makes for a memorable villain. Like several of the characters in Silence, Inoue Masashige was an actual historical figure. There is never doubt about Inoue’s cruelty, even when the character sometimes comes across as comic. Neeson can always be depended on to lend gravitas. While we’ve seen him play the role of mentor before, the role of Ferreira presents Neeson with more of an acting challenge than the action hero parts with which he’s become associated in his later career.
While there is much in Silence for cineastes to savour and while it’s almost automatically become canonised as an “important film”, it’s easy to see why Silence failed to find much of an audience. Faith-based films tend to be pitched as inspirational, and Silence is near-relentlessly bleak. It is interesting that Scorsese, whose Last Temptation of the Christ was hotly controversial and widely deemed to be blasphemous, approaches the Catholic faith with such reverence here. Scorsese has said of his own faith, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.” The filmmaker has sunk his heart and soul into Silence, but it’s obvious that not everyone will be convicted by its meditation on faith.
Summary: Meticulously crafted and intense but plodding and somewhat arduous to sit through, cinephiles and the faithful will find Silence thought-provoking, while others will simply find it boring.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars