In the age of Twitter and instant social media reactions, the movies that get the most praise are usually the ones that grab you in the moment, during the runtime of the film. Whether it be quippy dialogue, fast action, or a story that moves at a brisk pace, you walk out of the theater and you know that you liked that movie (this is not an insult by any means, I’m thinking of Up in the Air or The Social Network as examples). Then there are movies that sit with you. Maybe you weren’t so sure when you left the theater, but as more time and thought is dedicated to it you realize that what you witnessed truly is masterful. Enter the latest film by Martin Scorsese, Silence.
A passion project of over 20 years, Silence adapts the novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, and tells the story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan looking for their lost mentor in the faith. Upon arriving in Japan, the two are encouraged by the faith seen in the underground church there, but are quickly introduced to horrors that face believers in that country as state-sanctioned persecution is the norm. It is in this basic plot construction that Scorsese (and co-writer Jay Cocks) follow one man’s journey through the valley of doubt, giving audience members 161 minutes to think about their own faith and what it means to be a true believer.
Let’s get the basics out of the way, from a filmmaking perspective, Scorsese and company might just be the best working today. Whether it be the hair and makeup, the production design or the cinematography, the film is absolutely gorgeous. A truly beautiful film (aesthetically at least), Silence does a great job immersing you in this period. Apart from the three famous actors in the center, you feel as though Scorsese was able to travel back in time and capture these communities on high quality film.
Make no mistake, the film is long. With a runtime like Silence’s, a filmmaker better be pretty confident in the themes they want to communicate, if not they are just wasting our time. Luckily for us, Silence introduces and explores so many grand ideas so that when the story moves slower, we have much to chew on and think about.
I’ve come away from the movie with one central idea, but the movie interacts with other huge questions:
Do our actions matter as long as we have the right beliefs?
Do we worship the idea of being “correct” at the expense of real human connection/experience?
Who are the “bad guys?” Those using their religion to torture others for believing differently? Or those bringing a foreign lifestyle to indigenous people, thus bringing torture and death to the innocent?
Each audience member will interact with Silence in a different way. It would be an incredible discussion to have an atheist, an evangelical Christian, a Roman Catholic and a Buddhist discuss the film and see what they took away from it. It is possible each of them would appreciate the film for its thoughtful introspection of faith. It is also possible for each of those groups to hate the movie, asking the film questions it never sought to answer (and thus being disappointed in the lack of answer).
That being said, the film is a masterful experience exploring the central idea of what it means to be a dogmatic believer. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) starts out as many in his faith are. He is solid in his theological convictions and zealous to take on a dangerous mission in the name of faith. Upon meeting the underground church, he is empowered by the persecuted church’s faith and feels and enjoys a little celebrity experience, being the first priest in their village in years. Though he was skittish at first, Rodrigues comes to the place where he is ready to be martyred, dying for what he believes in will give his life purpose. We are about an hour and a half into the film at this point and this is where Silence turns the corner to establish its greatness.
His oppressors will not kill him, that would be too easy. Instead, they seek to break his will, to see him denounce the faith, for his apostasy will be an example for the rest of the Christians in the area. It is in this section of the film where the plot slows down. Rather than be a detractor on the movie, Scorsese gives us images and thoughtful conversations and begs us to interact with the material on display. The film starts out black and white, there are real believers and then there are those fakes who gave up. By the time we get to the end, we live in the grey spaces that make up real life. We understand that faith is not straight-forward, and each member in the audience will come to their own conclusion as to whether the characters in the movie have made the right decisions.
I really don’t know if Silence ends up being pro or against religion as a whole, but again, I don’t think that is a question the movie attempts to answer. What I do know is that the film is masterfully well made and is one of the most thought-provoking movies of the year. Scorsese ends up crafting one of the most interesting bible studies of all time. Carefully crafted, deliberately paced, incredibly well acted and introspective as they come, Silence is another Scorsese masterpiece and is not one to be missed.