Silence (2016)

Two young Jesuit priests search for their missing mentor while facing danger and persecution in 17th-century Japan.

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Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does God seem hidden when we need Him the most?

Why is there suffering in the world?

What loaded questions. But these age-old philosophical queries form the basis of Martin Scorsese’s religious epic Silence.

In 17th-century Japan, there are a number of hidden Christians (known as Kakure Kirishitan) under persecution from the authorities. The story follows two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), who are stationed at St. Paul’s College, Macau.

Garupe and Rodrigues receive word that their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been rumored to have forsaken the faith while under torture. Skeptical but nonetheless troubled of this rumor, both priests journey to Japan, attempting to both find Ferreira and bring a dash of faith, hope, and love to the impoverished, persecuted Japanese Christian community.

However, along the way, both men — especially Rodrigues —  become deeply distraught at the fear and tragedy that the Japanese Catholics deal with. They live in destitution and are desperate for someone to give them encouragement and support. Many scenes in the movie are Rodrigues journaling his thoughts, serving as an inner-monologue to his struggles. It’s heartening to know that even leaders of the faith struggle with the problem of pain, but Rodrigues and Garupe will soon find themselves persecuted as well, struggling to sustain their Gospel against the Japanese shogun.

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Silence is — to put it mildly — an emotional roller-coaster of a movie. Characters grapple with their consciences. Innocent men and women are tortured for their faith. Some characters deny their faith only to tearfully ask for confessions later on.

Put it this way: I have never, ever cried while watching a movie, but in Silence, there were three occasions where that streak was nearly broken.

Silence was in the works for 25 years, with Scorsese securing the rights to Shusaku Endo’s novel back in the 90s. Scorsese’s Catholic background was a key factor in his desire to bring the story of Silence to the big screen, but he still struggled to find the emotional heart of the story. Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jay Cocks, wrote the screenplay all the way back in 1991, but were never quite able to get the project off the ground, re-writing scripts numerous times in between Scorsese’s other films, such as Shutter Island, Gangs of New York, and Hugo.

Eventually, the duo were embroiled in legal battles with studios and had to fight for many years to retain the novel’s rights. Scorsese continued to work on other films in the meantime, before finally deciding to film Silence after his 2013 blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Even at the age of 74, Scorsese is still one of the greatest directors alive, and this pet project was something that he was genuinely passionate about and fought to get made. Still controversial among Christians for his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese nonetheless does have a sincere set of beliefs, even if it’s taken him awhile to re-examine them in his later years. “All I’ve had all my life are movies and religion,” the director once said. In fact, Scorsese briefly considered entering the ministry thanks to the positive influence of a priest during his teenage years at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

Father James Martin — a real Jesuit priest — worked with both Driver and Garfield to ensure an accurate representation of the Catholic faith and traditions. Garfield — fresh off playing another faith-filled hero in Hacksaw Ridge — actually undertook the Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the role. The Exercises are a series of meditations and philosophical musings practiced by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Garfield admitted that he found them “profoundly transformative.”

Filming Silence was a grueling process, with many actors losing weight and suffering through unpredictable weather conditions while shooting in remote and rugged parts of Taiwan.

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Silence does have some incredibly powerful moments. Even for a three-hour film, it’s truly engrossing and beautifully shot, although it really can be hard to watch at times. By Scorsese’s standards, Silence is a very mild R-rated film, with only occasional bloodshed, but it’s still tragic seeing so many people suffer.

Let me be clear: Silence deals with some very deep themes and religion permeates every aspect of the film. Heck, that’s probably why the movie flopped at the box office: most Scorsese fans will not be expecting this type of film from him, and lots of moviegoers aren’t necessarily comfortable with religious epics. But even if you aren’t religious, it’s still an outstanding film and something that is more than capable of tugging at heart strings.

Scorsese explains his philosophy further:

As you get older, ideas come and go. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me….ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time can you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends? Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession. It has to be done… it’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.

The director even went on record as saying that there’s not much hope for humanity without Christianity. “I’m a believer with some doubts,” Scorsese told The Hollywood Reporter. “But the doubts push me to find a purer sense of the word ‘God.'”

In Silence‘s examination of heresy and apostasy, there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. While it is certainly a grievous sin to deny one’s faith, Silence asks us to go even deeper than that. If someone outwardly denies his faith, but still believes deeply in his heart, is it as severe of a sin? Can someone serve Christ silently, even if he doesn’t show it publicly out of fear of being harmed?

Scripture is a prime example of how people are still redeemable, even if they struggle with their faith or even have public moments of doubt. In the Old Testament, Samson fell away from God, but still destroyed His enemies (and himself). In the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy, influential man who loved Jesus, but also feared backlash from the Sanhedrin and kept his faith secret. And, most famously, Peter — the greatest coward in history — became one of the most prominent and dedicated leaders the Church has ever known.

I should clarify — Silence does sometimes pose a lot more questions than answers, and among Christians, I would only recommend it for mature believers. Again, it’s an emotional roller-coaster and is the most thought-provoking film I’ve seen in awhile. The film is also punishingly lengthy (three hours), but does reward the patient viewer. Without getting into spoilers, the emotional payoff of Silence doesn’t come until the final shot of the movie.

Here’s what Catholic scholar Caesar Montevecchio stated in his analysis of the film:

Silence is as much about the object of Christian faith as it is the experience of that faith…..The object of faith becomes a Christ who is a hero of pity, who takes up the weakness and suffering of humankind as his cross, rather than a hero of triumphant resolve. The Jesus of Silence is one of utter kenosis or self-emptying, and one who in the mercy of that kenosis radically sympathizes with the weakness and frailty of human beings.

Japanese-American theologian Fumitaka Masuoka also echoed this view, stating that the movie “pivots on the idea that the silence of God is in fact the message of God, being not the silence of nothingness, but rather the accompaniment for the forsaken and the suffering.”

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Scorsese premiered Silence at the Vatican and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome at the end of November 2016. Scorsese met Pope Francis at the premiere, who wished the film great success and was also impressed by Garfield and Driver’s unique preparations for the role. Scorsese also arranged several private screenings for groups of Jesuits, many of whom were moved to tears. (I’m sure it was a surreal experience for Scorsese to be among groups of people who might have been ready to tar and feather him following Last Temptation, but that’s beside the point.)

It’s a shame that this film didn’t connect with audiences the way it should have. Silence is a remarkable achievement and one of Scorsese’s finest films, and that’s saying something.

Grade: A

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
  • Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô
  • Produced by Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich
  • Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
  • Music by Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge
  • Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Issae Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Ciarán Hinds, Yoshi Oida
  • Rated R for some disturbing violent content.

 

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