Scorces's Silence an Overlooked Masterpiece

SILENCE (2016)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Paramount, 161 minutes, R (violent images)

If I told you that a really long, slow, and frequently gruesome movie about 17th century Portuguese missionaries to Japan might be the best film you’ll see all year, would you believe me? You should.

Silence joins The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun to complete Martin Scorsese’s trilogy about faith, the need for tolerance, and the limits of the latter. It’s the movie he’s wanted to make his whole life, or at least since 1990, when he first tried to bring Shūsaku Endō’s novel to the screen. Scorsese, like many Roman Catholics in a secular age, has long struggled with church doctrines fashioned in the Middle Ages that make sweeping demands on believers, but are often rooted more in custom, archaic power structures, and the arcane reasoning of theological tribunals than in Biblical commands or the needs of followers. Scorsese also ponders deeper eschatological mysteries: life’s meaning, eternity, and the nature of God. He concludes that faith and reason are often incompatible lovers.

This is especially the case when it comes to God. One of the greatest conundrums is whether God hears our prayers. If so, why does it often seem as if we are alone in the universe? If you think about it, all organized religions are rooted in a monstrous conceit. Each poses an omnipotent, ineffable god yet insists that theirs is the only true deity—as if somehow they alone among finite beings comprehend the infinite.

In Silence, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) add another layer of irony. Their self-claimed task is to smuggle themselves into Japan, minister to the scattered faithful, and find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), one of the few priests not reported killed in the wake of the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-38), a revolt against Tokugawa shoguns widely (and conveniently) blamed on foreigners. So our two fathers leave Portugal, where the Inquisition remains in full force and non-Catholics meet fates similar to those suffered by Japanese Catholics! As they seek Father Ferreira, think a 17th century version of the search for Dr. Livingstone meets Heart of Darkness. They find small bands of faith-starved Christians, but also hair-curling persecutions: burnings, drownings, beheadings, and a few tortures not even Europeans had considered. Through it all, the question persists: Why is God silent?

Rodrigues and Garupe also meet a different kind of inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). He’s like Torquemada meets Marcus Welby—calm, reasoned, and a strange blend of mercy and unspeakable cruelty. He’s quite willing to forgive those who apostatize by trampling on an image of Jesus—something the professed devout believer Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) does repeatedly to save his neck—and then promptly begs priests for forgiveness. There is a scene between Rodrigues and Inoue that is at once a masterful parry of rhetoric thrusts and a portrait of chilling psychological terror. Again the big questions: What is the duty of the faithful? It is easy to despise Mokichi, a Japanese mash up of Judas and Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, but would you renounce your faith if by doing so you saved others? What if the cost of doing so meant that you and your flock would be forever lost? Would you save them, or bear the guilt that you let them perish? At what point does doubt overwhelm faith and fervor? How do you live with yourself if you turn your back on God? And what if God speaks in the silences, not during self-perceived acts of faith?

The film reaches surprising conclusions that, like Inoue’s demeanor, evolve with—mixed metaphor intended—explosive quietude. Silence is beautiful to watch and its locations (in Taiwan) are sumptuous and Zen-like. Garfield is wonderful as a devotee torn between desire to emulate Jesus and the fear he's not up to the task. Driver has a lesser role, but is also superb in his battle between reason and moral impulses of potentially disastrous consequence. Both are outdone by Tsukamoto and Ogata. Tsukamoto's Mokichi takes his place among Uriah Heap, Gollum, Francis Urquhart, and Peter Baelish as one of fiction's greatest obsequious, treacherous characters. For his part, Ogata stuns. Watch how he uses his seated body to collapse like a trapped toad, only to slowly inflate and assume a Yoda-like counselor's position. When he does this, he is about to puff again and mete out monstrous fates—all with a Mona Lisa smile upon wan lips. 

Does Scorsese solve the riddles of faith, tolerance, and the nature of God? Of course not, but you will never think of such issues the same way again. They will probably haunt you in your solitude.

Rob Weir


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