Martin Scorsese opens his foreword to the latest edition of Shusaku Endo's Silence with a simple, impossible question: "How do you tell the story of Christian faith?" The director isn't presumptuous enough to present his adaptation of that beloved novel as a definitive answer, but his film does read as another step on the filmmaker's path toward making good on his aspiration, early in life, to become a priest. (It's also one hell of an act of penance for the decadence of his most recent effort, the oft-misunderstood Wolf of Wall Street.)
Silence takes place in 17th-century Japan, when Christians were sailing from Europe to spread the good word — not that their hosts wanted to hear it. It centers on two such priests, fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) of Portugal, who receive the demoralizing news that their mentor, one Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has finally relented after years of violent persecution in the land of the rising sun and publicly renounced his faith. And so they set off on a slow boat to the other side of the world, bringing with them only what they can carry on their back and in their hearts.
Ferreira is something of a mythical figure, the fallen priest to Colonel Kurtz's mad soldier: often spoken of but rarely seen, a cautionary tale for those who would follow him into the heart of darkness. Our two pilgrims are scarcely dissuaded by the reports of his apostasy, seeing their self-appointed mission as a chance to prove both their faith and their mettle.
Not since The Tree of Life has Christianity been explored onscreen in such serious, conflicted terms, but Scorsese has crafted a far less grandiose experience than Terrence Malick did five years ago. Silence is restrained, austere, even ascetic; you'll feel guilty eating popcorn as Rodrigues grows ever more gaunt and worn down after willingly subjecting himself to the same harsh treatment at the hands of a Japanese inquisitor (Issey Ogata) that his predecessor endured. "I pray, but I'm lost," he says to a God he hopes is listening. "Am I just praying to silence?"
That's the eternal question, of course, and though Scorsese doesn't make it feel new, he certainly underscores how real and urgent it is. Rodrigues and Garrpe are met not by the man they seek upon making landfall in Japan but by terrified fellow believers who pray in secret and are every day at risk of going to an early grave for their beliefs. As men of the cloth, the two emissaries are enemies of the state they now find themselves in; spearheading the movement against them is Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, an imposing, high-pitched official whom Ogata imbues with the kind of off-putting villainous charm rarely seen since Christoph Waltz announced himself to the world in Inglourious Basterds.
At the inquisitor's order, three village elders who refuse to prove their Buddhism by spitting on a cross are crucified on the beach, at low tide, so as to slowly drown as the waves gain strength and crash to shore. It takes one Christian three days to succumb to the sea's rhythmic violence. In his last moments he begins singing a quiet song — a moment that, like many in Silence, is haunting and indelible. Mist rises from the ground and settles in the air; the faithful confer among themselves in tall grass they hope will hide them from their oppressors and blood mixes in with the dark sand.
Japan is a swamp, more than one native tells Rodrigues, and out of that sacrificial blood no new ideas will take root, nothing will grow — his efforts to bring the locals closer to Christ are for naught. Several times he’s offered a chance to do as Ferreira is said to have done and end his suffering. Scorsese, who’s careful throughout not to tip his hand, leaves it to us to decide whether this would be such a terrible fate.
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After weeks and months with no word of Ferreira but many from the villagers who keep him up all night with their confessions, Rodrigues takes to pondering the kind of questions he can't hope to answer on his lonesome. Christians often speak of a personal relationship with God, but for this young priest it comes to seem one-sided. His faith has yet to be truly battle-tested, more theory than praxis up to this point, and the moment that the world as he imagines it and the world as it truly is are revealed as two different things is its own kind of cataclysm.
This makes for a striking contrast to Hacksaw Ridge, the other movie in theaters about Andrew Garfield using faith as a shield in desperate times. It should come as little surprise that Scorsese is far more ambiguous in his portrayal of that faith’s efficacy than Mel Gibson, but Garfield shoulders the burden with appropriate modesty in both films. Still, among Silence's three lead holy men, it's Driver who most disappears into his role, not least because his face seems lifted out of an icon painting: angular and downcast, always gazing somewhere our eyes can't follow. His Garrpe also recedes into the background as Rodrigues' crisis of faith moves to the fore.
Scorsese has wanted to adapt Endo's novel for more than 25 years, granting Silence the unique distinction of being the director's most long-in-the-making work. He has reverence for the material, treating it with all the seriousness of a devout parishioner — sometimes to the point of not wanting to offend, as though he's putting as much effort into not making a mistake as he is into making a statement of his own.
Far from preaching to the choir, Scorsese's hardly even sermonizing here. You can sense him working the material over in his mind, as though 25 years of mental preproduction wasn't enough to reach any concrete answers, and the film is better for its uncertainty. If the good book is an open book, one still open to interpretation and questioning, Silence is too: We don't have to know the ultimate truth so long as we know it's worth seeking out.