Silence is not an easy film to watch. Its lack of driving soundtrack, intense religiosity, significant length and unusual pacing make it feel alien at times, almost like watching a film entirely in another language. However, it is this dissonant, unorthodox quality that makes it shine and that allows its emotional punch to be delivered with such quiet power.
The premise is simple: in the 17th century, two Portuguese priests, Francisco Garupe and Sebastião Rodrigues (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) travel to Japan to locate their old mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and discover the truth behind his apostasy – as well as spreading the teachings of Catholicism. Christianity is outlawed in Japan, with suspected Christians being forced to tread on an image of Christ or else be subjected to extreme physical and mental torture – the mission is as dangerous and high stakes as it could be. Where a tense soundtrack might be utilized to create a sense of brooding danger in many films, in Silence, the lack of virtually any accompaniment becomes oppressive, a shadow cast over every scene.
The film itself is one of the quietest I have ever experienced. The mists of Japan roll over the countryside blanketing sound, voices are often hushed for fear of discovery, even the sufferers are often muted in some way: drowning underwater, their pain so great they have been reduced to whimpers, or else, suspended upside down in a pit where their cries are barely audible except as near-phantasmal echoes. While in the first few minutes I struggled to find myself fully transported into the world of the film because of its subdued audio, it soon became part of a unique hypnosis. So many film soundtracks tell you what to think and when; Silence calmly shows you a scene and gives you the quiet space to reach inside and discover how you really feel about it. This reflective approach is very powerful, and cumulative, building as the film approaches its suitably understated denouement.
The cinematography is eerie – resembling, in some places, a horror movie. There are shots of Christ’s portrait (specifically a work by El Greco), zoomed in uncomfortably close to the black, gleaming pupils: it is frankly unnerving even for someone with religious convictions, but it perfectly reflects the intensity of Sebastião’s mental image of Christ and his fervent belief. This eerie style, combined with the lack of a soundtrack (sound being so crucial to horror) makes for an unusual cinematic experience. Almost every shot is dissonant in some way, and by that, I mean unexpected. There is a tendency in films of this nature, films that are about human suffering in a major way, to glut us with close-ups of agonized faces, but Silence moves away from that, often offering us distance shots in which the violence is only implied. Apart from one or maybe two moments of more visceral horror, the torture is often not dwelt upon in any pornographic or ‘in your face’ way, which makes it more haunting. This is certainly very different from the sheer brutality of something like The Passion of the Christ, powerful as that film is.
Still, Silence is about suffering: the suffering of Christ, the suffering of those persecuted in Japan by the inquisitor Inoue Masashige, the suffering of priests forced to give up their faith through mental and physical torture. But more importantly, it’s about the morality of suffering. It might be right to stubbornly refuse to korobu (to bow, surrender) your faith despite torture, but what about if it is someone else who is being tortured? What if others suffer because of your refusal? Christianity ad Buddhism alike preach about loving others; where then, is the line, when your faith causes others to suffer? Silence explores these complex questions with nuance arising from a brilliant script (co-written by Scorsese himself). Though at times the voiceover narration – often taking the form of letters from various characters in the story – can be a little expository, overall Silence is subtle in its handling of its weighty themes.
There is a distinct arc in Silence that is immensely satisfying: we move from the earlier scenes of successfully setting up a small congregation in Japan, to calamity, capture and towards a steady erosion of will in which faith is tested to its absolute limit. At once it mirrors the story of Christ, but also differs, and it is where it differs that the story becomes truly interesting. Sebastião, played so convincingly by Andrew Garfield (an actor I never rated before but who turns in an astonishing performance), seems so Christ-like (he even looks like the Evangelical depictions of Jesus), and yet we slowly discover he is not Christ, nor is his story the same as that of the crucifixion. His increasing desperation to hear God – which at first seems so pious – begins to seem like arrogance, a demand. But then, when the suffering of the film reaches its hellish apex, there is a moment of surreal beauty and revelation. The execution of this moment is spine tingling, perfect. In other hands it would have been corny, or even downright ridiculous, but Scorsese nails it; again, understatement is the key to the film’s immense power.
Though Andrew Garfield shines as Sebastião, he is not the only one who turns in a fantastic performance. Liam Neeson’s Ferreira is a wonderful study of someone who is not all he appears to be. The Interpreter for Inoue-sama (played by Tadanobu Asano) is compelling: a man who ‘understands’ Christianity but is, in fact, Buddhist. He takes on Sebastião Rodrigues’ views, going into the nature of the 108 illusions and what Buddhism truly is. These intimate examinations of theology, while they may be dense to some, make the film a truly deep exploration of faith and its meaning rather than a surface level scratch full of clichés about ‘still believing no matter what’. This is a sophisticated look at what it means to believe and have your views challenged at every level: mentally, spiritually, physically. It is intelligently written: the debates between Sebastião and Inoue-sama are predominantly through the language of simile and metaphor. Christianity is described by Inoue as the love of a competing concubine vying for the affection of a man (the man is symbolically Japan). Sebastião responds that Christianity believes in monogamy, choosing only one wife. Inoue changes tack, describing Christianity as ‘the love of an ugly woman’ that Japan does not want or need. This parry and riposte dialogue is razor sharp and makes the film intense even at its quietest.
Despite many wonders, Silence is not perfect. It is incredibly long, and due to certain recurring motifs: feels even longer. It probably could have ended 10 – 20 minutes earlier; as it stands the final scene is a little expository. I understand why the ending was done in the way it was: partly to remain true to the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō on which it was based, partly to ensure that its meaning is not misunderstood (the most common, in my view, of filmmaker’s errors). While Silence does an excellent job of bringing us on board with its protagonists, making us share, or at least sympathise with, their ideals and goals, the relentless religiosity of the film will be a turn off for some. Then again, I can’t see that anyone would go to see this film who isn’t interested in religion. Like Calvary, this is something of an answer to the increasing secularization of the Western world; it is an unapologetic affirmation of religious belief, though not necessarily of religious doctrine or even of, specifically, Christianity. Unlike Calvary, Silence is for the most part very serious and taking itself seriously, whereas Calvary knew when to break up its emotive and spiritual grandeur with black comedy.
The true test of any film, at least from my perspective, is whether it leaves a mark. Silence is still with me. Its haunting quietness, its strange cinematography, its dialogue, its meaning. While I preferred Calvary and found its ending more potent, Silence still stands as a fractured masterpiece about how perhaps the most awesome faith of all can be expressed without words.
Review by Joseph Sale
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