Legendary film director Martin Scorsese has spent two decades preparing to bring his latest film, Silence, to the big screen. Enlisting the star power of Ireland’s Liam Neeson and Ciaran Hinds, the film’s two young heroes are played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. Cahir O’Doherty reviews the 20 years in the making film that brings together two of Scorsese’s longtime artistic and spiritual obsessions – faith and doubt.
In Silence, Liam Neeson stars as Father Cristovao Ferreira, a Portuguese missionary who is missing and feared dead in Japan.
It’s the 17th century and the brutal persecution of Christians has commenced in earnest, now that it has become clear that their foreign religion is making serious inroads into the island nation.
As the film opens Ferreira’s still unknown fate is fretted over in Lisbon by Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) two committed young Jesuits who were once his students.
In discussion with Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) the courageous pair insists on traveling to Japan themselves to find Ferreira, hopefully aid his Christian mission and counter the many shocking rumors that he denied his Catholic fate and took a Japanese wife.
Although the young pair knows that the journey will be perilous, they nevertheless persuade the reluctant Valignano that it’s God’s will, and soon they are sailing east.
Recall that it was the Portuguese who brought guns and God to Japan in the mid 16th century. The Japanese hadn’t sent them an invitation.
Europeans had set out to navigate the globe and had given no thought to the cultural sensitivities of the countries that they landed in. It rarely occurred to them to consider if they’d be welcome.
But just as in Ireland, where we had our own local customs and traditions, the Japanese had their longstanding religions in Buddhism and Shinto, and for a long time the new Christian faith seemed to offer it no real challenge.
But the promise of salvation and a life of ease in the next world greatly excited the Japanese peasant class, the people on the lowest social rung, increasingly driving them into the welcoming arms of the arriving priests and destabilizing centuries of Japanese tradition in the process, with far reaching consequences.
Hope, when it flourishes in the places that it has previously never reached, can upend everything. So what had once been a minor religious variation had started to become a serious social and political threat.
Perhaps the most striking question early on in Silence is, who was this film made for, and who is it saying it to? You’d think at least the audience would have a clear sense from the outset, but if you’re an agnostic or a non-believer (and particularly if you’re Japanese) Silence will often be a struggle to sit through for the two hours and 41 minutes that it takes to unspool.
No concession is made to those who haven’t an abiding interest in Catholic faith, doubt, sin, redemption and guilt. Nor, strangely, is any real concession made to the customs, faiths and traditions of the Japanese other than as a contrasting foil for the interior spiritual struggles of Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe.
Arriving on the coast of Japan in the dead of night, the two intrepid priests fear they’re be killed as soon as they arrive, and sure enough they are immediately greeted by torch bearing peasants. But luckily these locals turn out to be secret Christians who have been without priests since the persecutions began. They agree to shelter the two priests at considerable danger to themselves.
What becomes apparent early on is that Scorsese gives much less screen time to the religious predicaments of the native Japanese than he does to the torturous struggles of the two priests, and in particular to Rodrigues, who seems to have brought along his own hairdresser and whose flawless 1970s shag hairdo inexplicably receives full Vidal Sassoon feathered blowouts when the script calls for him to echo Christ’s tribulations in the Garden, the Desert and on Calvary.
As is becomes clear that Rodrigues is emerging as the hero whose faith will be tested, Garrpe’s (no slouch in the feathered hairdo stakes himself) storyline quickly fades into the background.
With their lovely long locks and their bodega votive candle features, we care what happens to the two young leads because we have been as conditioned as their long flowing locks.
The heartfelt parting on the beach as they decide to split up and pursue their quests alone reminded me of the two missionaries in the The Book of Mormon, when they sing, “And now we’re seeing eye to eye, it’s so great we can agree!/That Heavenly Father has chosen, you and me -- Just mostly me!”
If Scorsese had a fear of crafting a White Savior narrative, whereby a white man foresuffers every blow and cruelty meted out on him by his sadistic Asian captors, the better to illustrate to them -- and to us -- that he answers to a Higher Power, he surrenders it completely in the first act.
Garfield is simply gorgeous, a pre-Raphaelite beauty with a pouting under bite that resists every attempt to rough him up or besmirch him with the grime of the streets.
That’s probably intentional. In this film he’s like the boyfriend you had in your twenties, the one who was so busy searching for salvation that he couldn’t see it was looking him right in the face.
That would be adolescent enough if it stopped there, but neither Scorsese nor his protagonist seem to learn much from the cultural exchange. That weird lack of curiosity about the land in which they find themselves makes for a profound culture clash, but it does little to interpret it.
Neeson, when he appears again, is a symbol of capitulation trying to pass itself off as principle. Or is he? We are asked to wonder how much he has really surrendered to his hosts who are also his jailers.
Early on, too early on, I begin to see the point the Japanese have about resisting foreign practices that make no room and have no interest in the culture they overlook.
It doesn’t help that the three leading Japanese actors cast in the film are superb. They have been given ciphers to play – the bumptious everyman, the sophisticated manipulator and the old sage. Tadanobu Asano in particular gives an extraordinary performance as an interpreter who ruthlessly leads Rodrigues to the breaking point.
Silence is about the ways in which God tests the faith of his followers by remaining silent in the face of their suffering. Is it because of free will, is it because your faith must rise to the challenge, is it because there is no God and you’ve been praying to nothing?
We are asked to worry about the state of Rodrigues’ soul and overlook the condition of all those around him. But since Rodrigues’ self-absorption is the most consistent presence in the film, the work is done for us, turning us into ancillaries, and often disinterested ones at that.
Silence is concerned with ideas, and behind that the rule of men (women barely have a line in this world or this film) and behind that the fate of love. But none of it coheres or makes a cogent argument or achieves the transcendence it is clearly in search of.
You know you’re missing the point of a missionaries in religious peril film if you sometimes want to light the martyr’s fire yourself. Watching Silence, I more than once wanted to say the thing so many Irish people said to British soldiers during The Troubles: you really should have stayed at home, son.