Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

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Boiled down to its essence, Silence is the story of two identically framed shots, both of which take place in the film’s first third. The first is of Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) striding across a beach, accompanied by members of a village in Japan almost wholly inhabited by Kakure Kirishitans (Japanese who worship Christ in secret) that welcome him and the spiritual services he provides with open arms. The second is of Rodrigues stumbling along the very same beach alone in disbelief, the wide and distant framing creating a sense of absence rather than a feeling of grandeur. Of course, no movie, and certainly not one of this magnitude and accomplishment, can be summed up in such a way, but it provides an undeniable contrast that mirrors that of the film of the whole. It is a constant struggle, orchestrated with nigh-impossible finesse by Martin Scorsese and company, between faith and doubt, destruction (physical and spiritual) and endurance, and a score of other eternal opposites. But it is never a simple conflict of East versus West or Christianity or Buddhism, nor does it ever succumb to any sort of extreme. It remains exceedingly faithful and yes, quiet, but in a way that feels irrepressibly moving and impactful, that continues to affect this reviewer days after, and will likely to shake me for years to come.

Scorsese’s confidence and his utter trust in the thematics at the center of his film (and the novel by Shūsaku Endō that it is based on) is such that the driving narrative force is all but absent during much of the film. After introducing the impetus for Rodrigues’s and Father Garupe’s (Adam Driver) perilous journey to Japan, the disappearance and possible conversion of their well-known mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), the film purposefully moves in fits and spurts, never breaking away from Rodrigues’s perspective. Its flow is impeccable, as comfortable when it lingers on the Jesuit padres providing the sorely needed sacramental rituals as when they are itching to continue the search, to leave the outer villages and search among the grave dangers of the cities under the iron rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

This is an unexpectedly quiet and powerful aspect of Silence, occurring even before the unimaginable turmoil that dominates the latter two thirds of the film, the simple statement “We need you.” It is said in a moment of desperation by one of the villagers, but it feels as if it applies to every waking moment of the Kakure Kirishitans’ lives. For them, the arrival of the padres is almost literally life-changing, a return of hope for a hidden people who have been forced to use valiant imitations and a surrogate priest in the face of systemic suppression. It is a comfort born out of an immense hunger, where the gift of a single rosary bead or a handmade cross gives immeasurable satisfaction. Scorsese shows this with utmost clarity, with a profound empathy for their belief almost without reservation.

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It is at this point where Silence takes its necessary turn, plunging deeper and deeper into the pragmatic cruelty of the suppression of Christianity in Japan. Led by the infamous Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), the authorities quickly move into and seize some of the Christians ever so slightly emboldened by the arrival of the missionaries. These captives are then subjected to the test that becomes the recurring image of doom: unless they choose to step on a fumi-e (an engraved image of Christ), they will be put to death in any number of horrific ways. Some of these methods shown in unflinching but never gratuitous ways include burning, drowning, and perhaps most striking of all, constant exposure to the pounding waves, a method that takes an alarmingly variable amount of time to cause death.

Throughout, Scorsese stays close to Garupe and especially Rodrigues, watching as they slowly break down seeing the suffering that they played no small harm in causing. Soon afterwards, the two part in an effort to continue the search for Ferreira, and the more practical (and indeed, more unconsciously devout) Garupe is fully abandoned for the viewpoint of the slightly arrogant but intelligent Rodrigues. It is difficult to quantify in such an integrated film how key Garfield’s performance is, but he is required to be both external and internal, displaying determination, sorrow, anger, and even madness often in the same scene, and carries the film with his countenance for large stretches of time. Eventually, Rodrigues falls into the hands of the regime, and the film becomes even more one of confinement, of a hypnotic sort of stasis, where Rodrigo Prieto’s nervy but beautiful images become locked down and ever more contemplative.

This second half is essentially the tale of a single decision; the authorities demand Rodrigues, one of the last priests left in Japan, step on the fumi-e and thus apostatize and publicly renounce the faith, but his convictions and, likely, his sense of pride in the faith prevent him from doing so even as he tells many of the Kakure Kirishitans to do so. Scorsese emphasizes the opposing figures here; Inoue appears semi-frequently, and Ogata’s continually off-beat yet suitably menacing performance provides an incredible counterpoint to the stolid Rodrigues. Tadanobu Asano’s nameless interpreter, too, provides a silver-tongued presence that serves as the scalpel to Inoue’s bonesaw. But the continual recurrence of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) provides yet another source of both opposition and reinforcement. A Christian and the Jesuits’ guide in the first third of the film, he is continually an enigma, at times embracing his faith and at others rejecting it, perpetually in fear of the Shogunate. But he always begs for confession from Rodrigues, and the padre acquiesces in varying manners each time that inform his actions to come.

Silence works in the nature of images and symbols to a degree that I’ve never seen before. Each frame seems to contain some item of resounding significance, from the torch on the roof of the cave that signifies the first villager the padres meet, to the recurring images of fog that dominate the first scene that acts as the backdrop to Ferreira’s despair, to the same painted image of Christ that Rodrigues keeps envisioning in his head, to the repetition in framing of the fumi-e as it is trampled. But it also operates via beautiful narration from no less than four different voiceovers: Ferreira as his letter which serves as the impetus is read; Rodrigues, first as he writes a letter to his superior (Ciarán Hinds) and then as if he is speaking to Jesus himself; what may be the voice of Jesus himself; and a Dutch trader in the last portion of the film, who speaks in a way that seems both curious and removed.

It is a film that both feels as if it is made out of moments and acts as a cohesive whole. Whole incredible sequences on their own, such as Rodrigues praying in vain as the film dissolves into him in almost exactly the same posture, or the emotional scene where Rodrigues and Garupe part, their final words to each other, “Stay alive”, creating a whole world of feeling, feel vital even as they don’t engage directly with Silence‘s central thematics. Even moments that feel incredibly important, such as the one where Rodrigues sees Jesus’s face in his own reflection, or his climactic decision rendered in heartbreaking, transcendent, silent slow-motion, contain multitudes.

The final fates of Rodrigues, Garupe, and Ferreira all feel both just and unjust in their own way, so persuasively has Scorsese argued both sides and embraced every ambiguity. If Silence may at the end of the day embrace some sort of faith, it is key that neither side argues against faith, but merely the method. I should note here that as an Asian Christian, the strength and the clarity of the film’s entirety, but especially its final moment, becomes more and more wondrous by the second. It both feels and doesn’t exceedingly personal to me, and I can forsee mountains of words in my future from this film. But for now, I must conclude, and I do so with a Japanese saying repeated by Ferreira that in some ways sums up the entirety of Silence:

“Mountains and rivers can be moved. But man’s nature cannot be moved.”

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