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.