By all accounts Silence has been a labour of love for director Martin Scorcese. Gestating soon after completing his most controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Although Silence intelligently debates weighty themes of religion, the 20-something years gestation of this project are sometimes apparent in it's grueling running time.
Based on the 1966 novel of the same name, by Shūsaku Endō, the last letter from Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is delivered to his order of Jesuit priests. After years with no news, the letter proclaims that he has renounced God during his missionary duties in Japan. Two of his pupils, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (a criminally underused Adam Driver), insist on travelling to Japan to either save or learn the fate of Ferreira. The persecution of Christians in Japan makes their journey fraught with danger. However, it's the clash of faiths that bring out the main themes of this story.
Anyone that's seen a Scorcese Picture - knowingly or not - will have felt the effects of his visceral eye. The opening of Silence is not only a scene-setter, but a loose metaphor for the purgatory our faithful priests must pass through. Liam Neeson's grave and gravelly voice describes the torture of the Japanese-Christian converts, by order of the Grand Inquisitor. Water is taken from the hot springs and poured on the converts, tied to faux-crucifixes. The disdain so strong that tiny holes are pierced in the containers so the boiling hot water boils the skin for longer. Neeson's Ferreira looks on in horrid despair. The allegorical purgatory is helped along by the claustrophic mist that wraps around the scene. When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan, their journey is surrounded by the same humid fog. It's both pervasive and oppressive, much like the perilous land they have visited to bring the word of God. Holding onto their faith, they make their way into an uncertain and settling realm.
While the metaphor isn't a contrivance, it's clearly deliberate. However, as Silence settles it's audience into the premise it will be exploring, it does become overbearing. Scorcese is unwavering in the subject of religion and is not afraid to present the hard questions that surround it. Faith's strength and it's futility is often contrasted. Garfield's Rodrigues is consistently presented with situations that would test the truest believer. Is being faithful to his religion and his God the right thing to do when others will be tortured and killed for your cause? At times it's to be commended, other times it seems a justification of the actions taken. Credit to Scorcese, while their are moements of suggested divinity on overhead shots and the word of God, he doesn't take a side other than that of his protagonist. Even the "test" of Christianity that the Inquisitor's Samurai cajole villagers into taking seems as ludicrous as trials of suspected witches in the dark ages. Even the Samurai translator refers to it as a "formality". A symbol in which to embrace the failings of his faith.
Much like Rodrigues, Silence triumphs are also it's most crushing failures. As interesting the ideas of faith, similarities and conflicts of religious ideologies and even secularism may be, an audience doesn't need to see scenes where characters repeatedly philosophise about the subject. Here it does indeed become the unstoppable force and immovable object of a doctrine, because, while delicately handled at first, it becomes ham-fisted when the same theme is incessantly revisited in the narration and the conversations that take place. Some of the most lauded scenes in cinema history revolve around exchanges where the parry and joust of conflicting conversations gain ground. Here the dogmatic views never lend themselves to catharsis or even a different perspective. The comparison of Christianity as a tree that can not take root in the swamp of Japan is effective at first and then trite.
Silence will test audiences. Some unwilling to explore may see it as propaganda, while others will fully appreciate the crisis of faith, regardless of it's origin. It's often rewarding that a filmmaker is comfortable with presenting the ideas and then allowing an audience to find it's way - but they shouldn't have to trudge. You could argue that the punishing running time and banal revisiting of the same points are somehow a reflection of the odyssey Rodrigues is taking in his own hellish mission - That Scorcese wants us to feel what Rodrigues does. While this does make sense and adds a layer to the doomed proceedings, tedium is not an emotion any film maker wishes to provoke. It may be powerful in parts, but it's unwavering conviction is also a costly sin.
3 - The Last Of The Jesuits