The devastating sound of Martin Scorsese's Silenceby
Two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are told a rumour suggesting their mentor (Liam Neeson), who had travelled to Japan to spread the gospel, has apostatised (renounced his faith), taken a wife and is now living the life of a Japanese. The two young priests set out for Japan to find their teacher, discover the truth and bring him back to God.
This is the start of Martin Scorsese’s new film which chronicles the Priest’s time in Japan facing huge hostility and much love. It is a film of great emotional impact which is both profound and moving. A exploration of faith under extreme stress and the questioning of God’s existence.
I have heard a lot recently about how Silence is not a typical Martin Scorsese film, it’s not about the mafia or about a criminal organisation, but anyone who knows Scorsese’s work will know that it is exactly what the great director would be interested in.
It has taken over 25 years to bring to the screen and forms the third part in his religious trilogy – The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun being the previous entries. Catholicism is something that Scorsese has been exploring his whole career. Remember the first line from Mean Streets: ‘You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.’ He was given a copy of the novel by Shûsaku Endô by a priest during the controversy surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ and, fittingly, he finished it in Japan while performing in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams. It obviously made an impact on him.
It is well documented that he joined the seminary for a short period before going to film school and has always struggled with his faith and this makes Silence perhaps his most personal film because, despite the sweeping vistas and the epic clash of cultures, it all comes down to one person questioning his faith when all he can hear in reply is silence.
The film can be split into two parts – the first involves the two Jesuits’ arrival in Japan, their meeting with Japanese Christians and their introduction to Japanese culture. It is an indication of how tough it was to be a believer during a time when the religion was outlawed. But it is the second half which covers the issues that you get a feeling that Scorsese is most interested in. Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is captured and is subjected to emotion and psychological torture. The authorities, led by the Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, have learned that torturing the missionaries does not stop them, so he decides to punish Japanese Christians instead claiming their punishment is not because of their faith in God but because of the Rodrigues ‘s pride.
It is this torture and Rodrigues’ reaction to it that is the heart of the film. It is emotional, shocking and extremely moving – both the Japanese Christian’s punishment and Rodrigues’ inability to stop it.
The title – Silence – refers to the feeling that God is not listening, that our punishment is worthless. It is a feeling that many Christians experience in their lives and seems to act as a summation of Scorsese’s struggles throughout his life.
It is a beautiful film to look at with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto perfectly capturing the rugged majesty of Japan – the intensity of the ocean, the jagged mountains, the brightness of Nagasaki town – however it is, quite fittingly, the sound of Silence that really impresses. There is a score by Kim Allen Kluge & Kathryn Kluge but it is sometimes so quiet that we don’t quite hear it. What we do hear throughout is the sound of nature from the crashing waves to the chirping cicadas who seem to provide a constant background noise each night. Apparently the composers incorporated these sounds into their compositions so you can’t tell when the music ends and the ambient sounds begins. At the start of the film we hear the cicadas getting loader and loader until suddenly – Silence.
The performances and characters are excellent with Garfield, Driver and Nesson all at the top of their game but the complexity of faith is best personified by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) a weak willed individual who is the first to apostatise whenever his life is in danger yet is willing to put his body on the line to receive forgiveness for these weaknesses.
Scorsese has long been a fan of Japanese cinema and has referenced Yasujiro Ozu when discussing the film, especially how he approached the scenes in the prison. This influence I think can be seen in the stillness that the director captures, something that Ozu excelled at. The most obvious influence in the early scenes though is Kurosawa and are reminiscent of the ending of Seven Samurai.
Many critics have commented that the film is slow and even those who have liked it have described it as having a very measured pace but I did not think so at all. It is a captivating piece of work that left me really moved and I did not notice it’s 2 hour 41 minutes running time. As I left the cinema and turned on the car’s engine I had to turn the radio off as I was not ready to listen to music or chitchat, I wanted to hang on to the feeling a little longer, to experience the silence for as long as I was able.