The meditative epic is a dying breed. Sure, there are still epic films every once in a while, like Titanic, Gladiator, or Troy, but these are all bombastic in nature. I’m referring to the quiet films that ask big questions and try to find the answers in the beauty of nature. The films like The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Seventh Seal, The Mission and The Tree of Life (to a degree), and most recently in The Revenant. These are films that want to understand human nature, and they explore it through long examinations of history and interaction. I’m not sure if Martin Scorsese revived the genre the way he wanted to with his newest film, Silence, but because of his passion for the project and his skill at the craft, the film does shine forth as an intelligent, morally complex drama about faith, humanity, and our bond with God.
In 1639, news reaches the Catholic Church in Portugal that important mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has disappeared while teaching in feudal Japan after committing apostasy-essentially, he had renounced God and given up the Christian faith. This news comes as a shock to his mentees, Jesuit Priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who wish to make the dangerous journey to find their potentially fallen mentor. They enter Japan in secret with the mission of finding Father Ferreira and bringing Christianity to Japan. Due to Japan’s desire to avoid Westernization, Catholicism has been outlawed, and anyone practicing will be forced to recant or be put to death. After months of preaching in secret, Father Rodrigues is rounded up with members of his parish, and begins to suffer under the weight of the unbearable silence of God. He is forced to make a choice-a choice that Father Ferreira had once been faced with. If he steps on a fumie (a small image of Jesus made by the Japanese), then he and the villagers will be let go. If he refuses, the villagers will be put to death one by one and tortured as they wait.
Martyrdom has been portrayed in both faith and the arts as the ultimate end, and I certainly understand the appeal. To give up your life for a person, belief, or cause that you feel is worthy is a powerful, incredible act that requires great willpower and faith. Whether you agree with the cause or not, you can certainly understand the strength and determination that goes into such a choice. However, things become a little trickier when it’s others’ lives on the line. If your message is about love and peace, how can you sit idly by when others are being tortured because of you? At what point does it stop being respectable to stand by your faith in the face of others’ suffering and just start becoming selfish? This is one of the major themes that plays out throughout Scorsese’s Silence, and it’s what helps make it a standout film. Scorsese uses this idea to help try and answer his bigger issue: why is God silent in the face of our suffering? Now, I won’t say Scorsese has created the definitive film on this subject. That would be 1957’s The Seventh Seal, which similarly asks the question of “Why does God sit by as we call to him in pain?” However, I will say that Scorsese does pull off imagery that could not have been accomplished in 1957.
This starts with the cinematography. Every image of Silence feels like a painting, capturing the allure and the haunting nature of feudal Japan. It makes everything much more beautiful, and yet much more disturbing when the natural order is disrupted by live burnings and beheadings. A sequence of three men being hung on crosses on a beach to slowly be drowned as Christian martyrs is single handedly the most haunting image in any movie this year, and that’s almost completely thanks to Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography. However, what makes the film really work is the sound design. Instead of a traditional score, the film chooses to illustrate the “God” through the nature. This can be interpreted two ways, and I don’t think either is necessarily wrong: either these sounds are proof of the “silence of God” concept, making Rodrigues’ frustrations that much more palpable, or the sounds could be the literal answers of God, offering comfort and joy to those suffering as they give their lives for him. Either way, it is one of the best sound designs on a movie I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, what’s working against the film is also its length. Because Scorsese has desperately worked on this film for thirty years, he seems unwilling to make any cuts or changes to the material. This is unfortunate, because the final fifteen minutes of this movie can be better summed up in five, the opening twenty minutes could have been reworked into a more powerful twelve to fifteen, and there’s chunks of the middle that easily could have been reworked. There’s a perfect two-hour cut out there somewhere, but because of Scorsese’s attachment to the material, we may never get to see it, and are forced to drag out an ending with an extra sixty years worth of plot.
Incidentally, the best actors in this movie are not the big name Hollywood actors, but the smaller Japanese stars who make up the ensemble. Sure, Driver is fine in his surprisingly small role, Neeson does well in what essentially amounts to a Colonel Kurtz performance, and Garfield carries the film’s weight on his shoulders, but it is the collection of loving and/or odd characters they come across in Japan that truly make this film sing. One of my personal favorites is Yōsuke Kubozuka, who plays the drunk, regretful Kichijiro, who has some of the film’s funnier moments as well as its most emotional. Another is Tadanobu Asano as The Interpreter, who is assigned the job of defending/speaking for Rodrigues when his Japanese knowledge runs out. It is here the film offers an interesting counterpoint to its own message: while the film clearly condemns the widespread persecution of any group of people, The Interpreter helps lay out a case for why they are at odds with the missionaries. They fear that the Christianity being preached is not actually a truth about a way of life, but an attempt to force new beliefs and new cultures upon the Japanese people, and to use them as pawns in wars against England, Holland and Spain. While the two cultures could live peacefully side by side as brothers in love and peace, they unfortunately result in trying to convert one another, and to try to diminish them for their own beliefs. Neither side is completely right, neither side is completely wrong. The only thing known for sure is that persecution is wrong.
However, if the film has a true standout, it is Issey Ogata, a Japanese comedian who plays famous Inquisitor Inoue Massashige. Ogata plays Inoue with a sense of pride and humor, relishing in each and every moment he is onscreen, creating the most flamboyant villain since Christoph Waltz first played Hans Landa. Whenever Ogata is onscreen, the film becomes electrifying, moving away from its period piece surroundings and breaking from the meditation for just long enough to feel amused/scared/intrigued. It’s one of the year’s best performances, and it comes from a 64 year old Japanese comedian.
I’m having trouble really getting my thoughts on this film across to you, the potential viewer. And I think that’s precisely the problem. This isn’t a film you really think about, even though there’s a plethora of images, themes, and ideas to contemplate and debate ad naseum. This is a film you need to feel. You need to feel the pain of the martyrs, and the conflict within the priests. You need to feel the clash of cultures and the agony of defeat. However, most importantly, you need to feel God. This can be read metaphorically or literally, but you need to feel him, and feel the love around us all. And that’s what will allow the climax of this movie to break your heart and flood you with warmth.