Iconic director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to religious movies. Not only has he tackled the un-PC topic of religion, but most of the other films on his resume are akin to religious experiences for cinephiles. Back in 1988, the Catholic auteur caught heaps of flack from religious institutions over his portrayal of Jesus Christ in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which showed the Son of God in very un-Biblical circumstances. Almost ten years later, Scorsese showcased another religion, Buddhism, in the Dalai Lama biopic KUNDUN. Now, almost twenty years after that, Scorsese returns with SILENCE. Based on Shûsaku Endô’s novel, the cinematic adaptation penned by Scorsese and frequent collaborator Jay Cocks is brilliant and awe-inducing. The profundity of the themes and the haunting imagery are bound to leave an imprint on your soul.
The year is 1643 – a time where Christianity is persecuted throughout many countries in the world. It’s a very dangerous time to be a missionary, bringing the outlawed gospel to foreign lands. Portuguese priests Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) have received word that a fellow priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been detained by the Japanese and tortured to renounce his faith. Their elder, Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) has heard rumors that Ferreira’s been apostatized, living as “a Japanese” and is ready to write him off. Garrpe and Rodrigues aren’t accepting this as fact, so they set out on a mission to find their missing mentor. Guided by drunkard/ lapsed Christian Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka, who’s this film’s MVP), their treacherous journey has them doing their covert ops under the cloak of night, hidden away in the light of day.
To echo the presence of God, Scorsese, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, utilizes the God’s-eye view with dramatic flair. Camera placement from above impacts the narrative powerfully – from the shot where the padres are walking down the staircase (image flipped on the horizontal), to the boat crossing Japanese waters (image on the vertical), to Rodrigues at his lowest spiritual and emotional point. Scorsese and production designer extraordinaire Dante Ferretti also play around with vertical and horizontal lines, which both mimic the sign of the cross (albeit deconstructed) and make a powerful statement that religious beliefs are imprisoning these characters. Not only that, but he peppers in “X” iconography (a subtle technique he used in THE DEPARTED) here and there. A tangible sense of gravitas permeates the atmosphere – not just foreboding, but comforting as well.
For a film about faith, it’s important the filmmakers show imperfection. We’re all sinners, after all, and there are moralistic gray areas. It feels daring that Cocks and Scorsese show all characters struggling with their faith – some more than others, of course, but all do. We feel the psychological torture Rodrigues goes through, ruminating over his faith’s principles, pondering if what he’s doing is to glorify God or his human side, or if he’s even making the right choices in general. His reflection that morphs from his own to the painting of Jesus and back is the perfect subtle commentary, stating more than words ever could. Kichijiro, who is very Judas Iscariot-like in influence, wonders if he did the right thing betraying God for survival. After all, it’s his survival that helps the Padres – or maybe doesn’t, depending on what you think.
Perhaps some of the best sequences are where Rodrigues and his captor, Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata, who you won’t stop talking about after), and a Japanese interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) square off about the philosophies behind their own religious concepts. These scenes are this film’s big action set pieces, equivalent to those of any other blockbuster action movie. Their verbal sparring is riveting, transfixing and engrossing.
Sound design also plays a substantial tertiary role in this. The sounds of nature envelop the tale from the beginning. At a few crucial moments in the narrative, sound fades away to either silence or dampened quiet. Scorsese bookends the film with a black screen and the white noise of the Japanese forest. A cricket’s chirp (a male mating cry for a female) is heard as a carved talisman of Christ on a cross is given as a gift, emphasizing the strong connection between nature and religion. Though the credits state there is a music supervisor (Randall Poster) and composers (Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge), I couldn’t tell you where those organic and ethereal compositions are in the movie as they blend so subtly and quietly. The film is blessedly restrained in that traditional sense of score.
While this thankfully isn’t as violent, gory, or punishing as, for example, UNBROKEN, there are scenes of brutality. Heads on spikes as fog ominously rolls over the hillside, torture scenes of drowning in the ocean or being burned alive, and the casual beheading of a prisoner are shocking, but not exploitative. Emotional stakes are immersive without being constantly obtrusive.
4.5 out of 5
SILENCE opens on December 23.