It would be a mistake to separate director Martin Scorsese’s films into religious and secular categories. Even The Wolf of Wall Street has a religiously motivated moral core (never mind that I found the satire surrounding it to be an endurance test). The point is that for Scorsese, the question of faith—especially as it pertains to Catholicism—has always been part of the equation.
If The Last Temptation of Christ didn’t convince you of that, Silence will. An adaptation of the Shûsaku Endô novel about Jesuit missionaries suffering persecution in 17th-century Japan, Silence takes religious devotion as its very subject, one that Scorsese depicts with a solemn intensity that builds into a cinematic fervor.
Silence opens on a landscape that could have come from one of the films of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa: a rocky, almost moonlike terrain largely hidden by steam and fog. As the mist dissipates, we see something horrible: captured missionaries being scalded with water that has been ladled from nearby hot springs. This is the danger that two young priests—Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) and Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield)—risk when they sneak ashore a short time later in the film, guided by an untrustworthy Japanese man named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka).
This first third of Silence—as Garrpe and Rodrigues set up a covert mission in a tiny seaside village—has an entrancing minimalism, as the pounding of waves and the chittering of bugs do the work of a traditional movie score. The effect is not only the feeling of being strangers in a strange land, but of being on another planet.
Even so, Garrpe and Rodrigues eventually re-establish a religious routine for the Christians in the village, conducting Mass and even baptizing infants. All along, Kichijiro—the Judas figure who had suspiciously fled his own village in advance of the authorities—stands in the corner, as if he might run away again at any time. It’s not a question of whether his soul can be won for God, but whether it was won once, and now is irretrievably lost.
The great trick of Endo’s novel is that it really means to ask the same question of Rodrigues. Silence is this priest’s (anti?) testimony. As the persecution spreads and Rodrigues and Garrpe both become ensnared, the movie begins to ask unfathomable questions: when faced with torture and the threat of death, what is your duty to God? And what does it mean if you fail to perform it?
If there is a frustration to Silence, it’s that the movie explores these questions in some ways that are elegant and others that are obvious. Consider the use of voiceover. In many instances, this consists of Rodrigues telling us exactly what he feels, explicitly stating his fears and doubts. Such a technique is understandably a temptation when adapting a first-person work of literature, yet it’s also the death of cinema. Far more compelling are those moments when Scorsese uses imagery to express Rodrigues’ turmoil. In the novel, Rodrigues frequently references the face of Christ, and Scorsese’s envisioning of that—with occasional insert shots of an impassive portrait of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns—makes for an arresting motif. It captures Rodrigues’ zeal in a way that’s far more powerful than recited words.
The face of Christ returns for the movie’s strongest scene, in which Rodrigues is told by his captors to step on an engraved image of Jesus. (Known as fumie, such objects were used for ceremonies in which Christians would renounce their faith.) I wouldn’t dare reveal what happens, except to note that here too Scorsese manages to evoke the spirit of Endo’s book largely through sound and imagery, characterizing faith as something made up of equal parts agony and mystery.
I wish that mystery had sustained itself through to the very end of the film. There is a final shot in Silence, inspired by but not drawn from the novel, that is the movie’s most literal touch. This finale provides a clearer sense than ever before of Scorsese as priest, but I can’t help feel that it somewhat comes at the cost of Scorsese as artist.