Recently the nominees for the 89th Academy Awards were released and there were a number of notable head-scratching decisions. Just about any serious Film critic would agree that it was a very trying year for filmmaking, The number of quality films were rare amidst a torrent of corporate-approved comic book movies and sequels that Hollywood has inundated us with. I personally wonder why Meryl Streep is essentially given a placeholder spot among the Best Actress nominees each year when she hasn’t appeared in a good film in at least a decade, meanwhile Amy Adams, who had multiple gripping performances in challenging works was missing. But of course, all these issues come down to the fact that the Awards are highly political and the decisions often nonsensical. For some reason they still maintain credibility, but I find it honestly insulting that Martin Scorsese’s newest work, Silencereceived one paltry nomination. Though it’s a flawed film, the sheer quality of the work, along with the competency of the filmmaker and its cast/crew makes it far more deserving of acclaim than many of the Academy’s other choices.
Set in 1640s feudal Japan, Silencefollows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) in their attempt to bring the light of Christ to the fiercely Buddhist Japanese. For several decades Christianity had been violently and comprehensively oppressed by the Japanese authorities who saw Christianity as an arm of European imperialism, and subsequently a threat to their authority. The Jesuits receive word that Garupe and Rodrigues’ mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who had been missing for five years, has denounced the Christian faith under pressure from the Japanese authorities. Both priests refuse to believe this accusation and they set out to ascertain his whereabouts.
With a little help from an untrustworthy Japanese Christian named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), the missionaries set off from Portuguese Macauk for Japan where they minister to the embattled Japanese Christians (commonly referred to as Kirishitan) who have not had visits from priests in at least 20 years. Under threat of torture and execution the Kirishitan had been driven underground, forced to hold secret prayers by candlelight in private homes.
For a while the Japanese Christians cherish the presence of these legitimate Catholic priests, however, the presence of the missionaries eventually draws the attention of the Shogunate, who kidnap and torture the Kirishitan and eventually capture Rodrigues and Garupe. Unexpectedly, the missionaries’ lives are spared because of the Shogunate’s experience with martyring priests in the previous decades. The Japanese discovered that the Church survives on the blood of the martyred, so instead of simply executing the men, they attempt to pressure them into denying their faith publicly, as they did to Father Ferreira, who now lives in Japan as a Buddhist student with a Japanese wife.
Father Rodrigues resists apostasy (the abandonment of his religious beliefs) because, as a devout 17th century Jesuit, he believes apostasy a sin worse than death. He’s a very prideful missionary, even to the point of having delusions where he sees himself as Christ, so he has no qualms about enduring a martyr’s death for his faith. However, when the Japanese torture and kill his Kirishitan subjects and leave him unharmed, he must face the moral question of whether others should suffer needlessly for his pride. This dilemma essentially forms the moral quandary around which the rest of the film revolves, and as Father Rodrigues witnesses the torture of his followers, he himself is relentlessly anguished by the eternal silence from God that gives the film its title.
Silence is essentially a series of arguments and discussions concerning the nature of theology and faith as seen through the real-world consequences of Japan’s repression of Christianity, and there are no easy answers for the many complex questions the film raises. The nature of faith, including its distinct motivations and consequences, forms a philosophical quandary that is left intentionally unresolved throughout the film. Interspersed between these moral considerations are many depictions of cruel torture exerted on the missionaries and the Kirishitan, each filmed in beautifully placid scenery that seems to add to the pain and brutality with which the punishments are meted out. It’s a very painful film with many unsettling and open-ended questions designed to have a profound impact on its viewers.
Much like the lives of its priests, this film yearns for divinity and yet is flawed in some key aspects. Personally, I’m not sold on Andrew Garfield as a leading actor yet, and though he was serviceable as Rodrigues, the film could have benefited from a different actor in the lead role. In my opinion Adam Driver would have been a better choice rather than being relegated to his comparatively small role of Garupe. I found the choice of using English with a Portuguese accent to be unnecessary; we would have accepted the Portuguese foundations of the characters without it, just as Amadeusdidn’t require Mozart to speak with a German inflection. There are also definite issues with pacing, as this is not a traditional narrative and many of the grisly scenes were replayed with little change or advancement of the plot.
All in all, the flaws in Silence in no way detract from the film’s many quality aspects, including the astounding cinematography as well as a few notable shining performances, specifically the Judas-like figure of Kichijiro (played by the Japanese actor Yōsuke Kubozuka) who deserves specific praise. Silenceis not your typical Scorsese movie, and that’s why it hasn’t performed as well as many of his other films, but in many ways it is the director’s most personal and unique project, and it is well worth watching.