I guess it follows that a movie titled Silence should lack a score. Marty’s latest meditation on faith (arguably his third after 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Dalai Lama humdrum biopic Kundun) opens instead with the sound of crickets, a telling forecast of the level of excitement soon to be unleashed. It’s not that Silence lacks artistry, there’s no shortage of stunning shots (but it’s no accident that those that standout most are the various Christians gettin’ tortured scenes), but there’s so much dead air, so much *ahem* silence, that getting from one beat to the next feels like an endless crusade towards but a mirage. Accented only by crickets and cicadas.
Long before the Enola Gay loosed Little Boy on Hiroshima, Father Francis Xavier traversed the Indian Ocean to drop Christianity on the then heathen Japanese populace. Its impact was equally deadly. Hundred of thousands of disenfranchised Buddhist Japanese flocked to the religion, which promised a respite to their serfdom suffering once swept from their toothless and chaffed-toed mortal coil. But Edo military Japanese feudalism would not stand for these mass conversions, ushering in a period of religious genocide and Kakure Kirishitan, or hidden Christians that saw the brutal execution of converts and foreign priests across the nation.
Martin Scorsese’s 28-year in the making passion project adapts Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, which explores the journey of two Portuguese Jesuit priests circa 1640 as they head to Japan to find their long-lost mentor. Hiding ensues. According to Silence, Christianity in mid-17th Century Japan was but an exaggerated game of hide and seek. Expect when you were found you often met the business end of a katana.
Scorsese’s feature, co-underwritten by Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York), appropriately plants us in this turbulent period of religious persecution and for many, will offer a compelling history lesson oft omitted from public knowledge. The two emphasis the danger of their saintly mission as Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) enter enemy territory to find the missing Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a prized leader of the many missionary missions and their personal mentor.
The parallels to Nazi-occupied Europe are as obvious, with Rodrigues and Garrpe hiding beneath floorboards to avoid detection, emerging only at night to give sermons by candlelight and receive hushed confessions. Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s pallid interpreter Mokichi should have a punch card for the amount of times he resurfaces to spill his corrupted soul to Rodrigues. Like an unlucky penny, he shows up whenever the plot demands Rodrigues to struggle with a new moral challenge, almost as if Japan is an island spanning 50km and with a populace of say 200.
Self-flagellating is one act of penitence not observed in Silence but watching the cultural imperialism that is the Christian mission to convert is its own form of self-flagellating. As these journeymen hide, bless, baptize and sermonize, there is no narrative momentum. Silence moves like molasses on opiates; a turtle with nothing on the agenda. The first hour is repetitive beyond belief, broken up only by moments of inventive violence perpetrated against the bullheaded believers.
The film’s standout scene sees a trio of Kakure Kirishitan crucified on the cold black pumice ocean shore, bore down upon by the spitting wrath of a rising tide. Exhaustion and salt water whittle them down to skeletons. One of their ilk takes four days to die. Like Rodrigues and Garppe voyeuring from the bushes, we watch in stunned awe; passive observers to nonchalant barbarism. A provocative moment in a film otherwise short on them, Silence’s memorable scenes thrive on the contemplative horror of going to your grave for your faith. When we’re apart for these challenging but provocative sequences, Silence remains but a gorgeous bore. Ace cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto elevates Scorsese’s provocative imagery, but ’tis a bore nonetheless.
All the while, the shaggy haired Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues channels Christ. Both physically and mentally, he attempts to embody his lord and savior, begging serious questions of the character’s increasing hubris. At one point, the skin and bones Rodrigues stares into a puddle and sees Christ’s face where his should be. He cackles in joy. As if all of this were but a Kafkaesque means to become the very savior he cherished. Dying (literally) to be a martyr, it is those around Rodrigues who instead suffer for his devotion. The feared Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, performed with whistling teeth playfulness by a cat-like Issei Ogata, uses Sith-like tactics to break down Rodrigues, punishing those around Rodrigues to smack free his piousness. His goal: the apostatization of the zealous padre. All he has to do is step on a plaque depicting Christ’s likeness and all those he’s converted will be set free. Heads intact.
By the time Rodrigues has begun to seriously question his faith, we’ve all but checked out. The added fact that none of the Christian characters have much complexity beyond their stubborn devotion makes Silence a film that can be deadly hard to engage with. At a substantial two hours and 41 minutes, Silence also faces a serious pacing problem. Originally edited to three hours, fifteen minutes, the theatrical cut of Silence fails to invest its time wisely as the last twenty-odd minutes is a strangely sluggish yet totally hurried rush to a kind of wishy-washy conclusion. We spend so much time bearing witness to Rodrigues’ struggle with his faith that when a major pivot is finally made, there’s no time to discuss what in my mind are much more provocative questions. That being said, the last thing I wanted after 161 minutes of Silence was more time sat in the damn theater.
CONCLUSION: Martin Scorsese’s infatuation with his Christian faith makes for a visually suggestive and provocative piece of historical fiction however at 161 minutes, ‘Silence’ is epic only in its ability to replicate an endless slog towards a poorly defined finish line. Its complex message about faith and the faithful and Scorsese’s powerful imagery sticks to your ribs but the actual watching of the thing is a notably dour and long-winded litmus test of disquieting (and often, yes, boring) cinema.