Faith is a strong draw for theatergoers. Since the dawn of the medium, film has mined mankind’s quest for such unknowable, unprovable truths, and whether a staunch, confident believer, or a forever doubting/forever seeking skeptic, anyone on the spectrum can find something to help them make sense of such an intimate, personal relationship. For me, I am fascinated by the notion of total surrender to something so supremely higher than myself, enough to cast away all doubts and believe as though it were an observable fact. That’s why I am drawn to films like Silence, that so succinctly explore this connection between the mortal and the immortal, that challenge doubters, not necessarily persuading of the existence of a specific God, but rather showing the power of belief, an idea that goes hand in hand with film itself, and the suspension of disbelief. That Silence also happens to be directed by Martin Scorsese is, and excuse the pun, pure manna from heaven. It is at times dutifully slow in its deliberate reflection on faith, and its limitations, or lack thereof, of Catholic priests, who are assumed to be the most closely and deeply invested, and it is also the best film of 2016.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Shūsako Endō, Silence has been a passion project of Scorsese’s for decades, lingering in various stages of pre-production in between making his other films. Its story is simple, yet devastatingly resonant, concerning two Portugese priests, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, who travel clandestinely by boat to Japan, where Christianity has been banned and aggressively purged, to uncover the fate of their mentor Father Ferreira, after word reaches them that he may have renounced his faith and apostatized under the duress of torture. Once there they take on a wastrel Christian peasant named Kichijiro, who serves as their guide, and they begin a journey fraught with danger and crises of faith at every turn, until ultimately coming face to face with the truth about their mentor.
At nearly three hours in length, Silence might be a punishing experience for audiences, rather than an exalted one, but Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto spare no opportunity to soak up the beautiful coastal Japanese landscape these two priests are trudging through, which are rendered harsh and desolate by context, many times with only the ambient sounds of the brush overhead or the smashing waves to accompany them. But this is a story that commands attention and deserves and earns every minute of your time. Andrew Garfield delivers the performance of his career so far as Father Rodrigues, whose perspective Silence adopts through occasional voice-over reassuring himself of his faith in Christ, at increasing turns both lamenting and praising his situation, beginning to wonder why God remains silent during repeated tortures and executions he witnesses of lowly Christians at the hands of fellow countrymen, and remaining ever thankful for the opportunity to be a priest in a land where they have all been cast out, to help those remaining Christians who have been abandoned by the oppressive regime. Adam Driver is great as well, in a more limited role as Father Garupe, continuing his streak of eclectic performances. But the real surprise here is from Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige, the Grand Councillor of Japan who was instrumental in purging Christianity from the country. His chilling empirical analysis of religion during extended dialogues with Rodrigues makes for some of the most enthralling discussions of their kind found in cinema, and it is a crime that his performance wasn’t recognized by the Academy.
Full of challenging introspection and notable arguments between science and faith, co-written by Scorsese and long-time collaborator Jay Cocks (Gangs Of New York, The Age Of Innocence), Silence never loses its grip on you visually either, with a pivotal scene shot from Rodrigues’ perspective, behind the bars of his Japanese prison cell, pacing back and forth while a brutal execution takes place right in front of him. Ever the master craftsman, Scorsese navigates this challenging material with an eye for detail and nuance, adding extra beats to the many conversations, ominously underscoring the gravity of their life and death importance. His quest for authenticity is unparalleled as well, depicting many scenes of unrelenting torture that will have you wondering how he filmed them. Scorsese even goes so far as to recruit husband and wife ambient composers Kim Allen and Kathryn Kluge to create an actual soundtrack full of the sounds of nature, isolating specific sounds at certain times to almost subconsciously echo emotional moments in the film. Sadly their soundtrack has been disqualified from Oscar consideration due to its inherent lack of musicality, or more likely due to the voters’ continued inability to understand the different and adventurous ways in which scores can be used to enhance such a visual medium.
I’ve seen Silence twice now, and it only gets better on the second viewing. Full of many quiet moments, and with so much visual material to absorb, the way nature becomes a character all its own, Silence, like faith, rewards the patient and the committed. This is not a film like many in Christian cinema that merely provide an echo chamber for the choir, or a reassuring pat on the back. Ultimately it will be what you are wanting to see in it, and those looking for such things will surely find them here. But its enduring majesty lies in its deft ability to blend historical drama with deep personal introspection. That Scorsese can shed light on a mostly unknown chapter in the history of religious persecution, while at the same time holding a mirror up to our own crises of faith and struggles with unknowable truths that inform our beliefs, and do so with peak form and consummate artistry, makes Silence mandatory viewing for anyone who finds themselves on a journey, be it spiritual in nature or physical. In its own way Silence is finally a film with answers, instead of just more questions.
The Verdict: Rave