Standing among a group of faithful Japanese Catholics, determined to share Christianity, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) takes out his personal rosary, rips the thread holding the beads together, placing one bead for each of the many person’s opened palms; Father Rodrigues’ hands are left empty. Director Martin Scorsese is asking at what point is it worth. Is it worth sharing his strongly held faith if it means he has to undo it? Can faith survive shared amongst the masses? Can God hear the persecuted as they scream out his name? Or are such cries spoken to silence? With Silence, Director Martin Scorsese provides no clear answers as the questions are too complicated, which only adds to the sensational achievement of the experience.
Silence is as good of a film as any in the director’s 50-plus year career, but one that requires audiences to persevere throughout the entire picture, which may be more than some can endure. Many walked out of the screening I was in to take a quick break; myself included as some images were so powerful I became sick to the point of vomiting. That’s never happened to me before. Scorsese has crafted a long, hard, and relentlessly painful experience at the movies, the result one of best in recent years.
In 17th century Japan the country has outlawed Christianity, forcing those practitioners to abandon their faith or face persecution in the harshest terms possible. Silence opens with young Portuguese priests Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) hearing the news that their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), may have forsaken God while acting as a missionary in Japan. The two decide to embark to Japan in search for Father Ferreira – as well as spread Catholicism among the natives. The risks Rodrigues and Garrpe face are tremendous as the two are starkly naïve to the depth of the country’s strong anti-Christian sentiments and unaware how greatly it will challenge and test their faith.
The words “challenge” and “test” need emphasis. Just as much as the young priests are tested as Christians, the audience is tested as moviegoers. Silence is really, really hard to watch, having among the most terrifying violent torture scenes ever put to film. And notice I said “SCENES,” as in plural; many of which cannot be unseen. I warn moviegoers, the experience will be too much for some.
Scorsese proves so uncompromising in his direction. It would have been a lot easier if Silence provided some sort of final satisfaction for its characters. And what I mean by that the film never concludes in the sure existence in God or even that the existence of God is definitely certain for the dying martyrs on screen. Scorsese constantly reminds the audience that sacrifices made by the Catholic characters may amount to nothing. Silence’s lack of anything absolute on any religious topic makes it more thoughtful compared to any film that comforts the audience with the illusion they have some sort of “answer.”
So much praise is required for this kind of movie. The sound design is marvelous and should win the Academy Award. It contains all the complexity of what is expected in 2016, and yet it has a crudeness reminiscent of international films in the 1950’s. The sound of the wood floorboards is harsh, reinforcing the harsh realities of the time. In Kurosawa’s and Bergman’s era, the coarse soundtracks resulted from primitive recording and mixing technologies, but these imperfections bring with them a profound emotional quality to them and its remarkable Scorsese and Silence’s sound department picked up on it.
And the cruel sound is complimented by the fantastic images painted onscreen. Weather hasn’t been incorporated as well into a movie since Kurosawa. The rain is at its wettest, the fire at its hottest, and the thick fog surrounding the Japanese landscape reflects a kind of spiritual atmosphere around the characters.
The performances are awesome. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver have been proving themselves as tremendous new talents and Silence confirms they will remain a force in Hollywood, with Garfield in particular showcasing an amazing ability to convey his character’s thought process through action. And Driver uses every muscle to psychically embody his character, giving a performance that would give nearly the same emotional impression if it was silhouetted.
I suspect Silence will become one of those rare movies that stand apart from time, like The Seventh Seal or 2001: A Space Odyssey, with themes as relevant and poignant as ever. Few filmmakers have been capable of making movies for five decades and still create work as compelling as their best, and perhaps the key for Martin Scorsese’s longevity is he never seems to stop exploring the world through a camera. What an incredible privilege it is to experience such a new piece of artistic mastery, one that easily sits among the finest in what’s an already impressive catalog.