‘Silence’ Review: Martin Scorsese Is Messing With Us, But Is It Worth The Pain?

Three hours is a very long movie, okay.

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Martin Scorsese’s Silence opens on a hazy tableau of suffering. The setting is 17th century Japan, during the nation’s brutal persecution of Christians. We watch Christians, outcasts in their own country, tied to makeshift crucifixes and ladled with scalding water from hot springs. We watch with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who falls to his knees at the suffering of his disciples.

This all unfolds without context. But even without knowledge of the events surrounding this misery, we’re conditioned to read it as meaningful. These people, we suspect, are enduring agony in service of something greater. As the film proceeds, we follow a pair of Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), as they secretly make their way into Japan to search for word of Ferreira. We’re witness to a litany of woe — torture and imprisonment and execution — inflicted upon people only guilty of worshipping the wrong God.

If this doesn’t sound like especially entertaining viewing, you’re not wrong. It’s hard to see Silence replicating the commercial success of Scorsese’s last feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, which attracted audiences with the promise of drug-drenched debauchery, comedic setpieces and Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s reflected in Silence’s modest box office taking in the States. Though I can’t imagine Scorsese — who’s been trying to make this film, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, for decades — particularly cares.

While Silence isn’t anywhere near as fun a night out at the movies as the auteur’s last picture, it does at least share a fondness for fucking with its audience. Just as Wolf aggressively interrogated the audience’s identification with DiCaprio’s charming yet despicable über-capitalist, Silence subtly subverts the insidious narrative of meaningful misery that’s so ubiquitous in Western (and Christian) culture.

White Saviour or Total Failure?

Like many of Scorsese’s films, Silence is ripe for misinterpretation. Many critics have read Rodrigues’ path through Japan — where he’s protected by small communities of poor Christian peasants — as another example of the trite and problematic “white saviour” narrative. Historically, Scorsese’s hardly been averse to the problematic — even as recently as Wolf, he was criticsed for his “sleazy glorification” of stockbrokers — so it’s an understandable, and not entirely inaccurate interpretation.

The film initially establishes Rodrigues as an archetypal white saviour — he is, to quote Wikipedia, “a white character [who] rescues people of colour from their plight”. When he and Garupe arrive on Japanese shores, accompanied by the drunken and unreliable Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), they’re quickly included in a village desperate for spiritual guidance. Having embraced Catholicism, the peasants shelter the two priests while eagerly partaking in the sacraments of communion and confession. Rodrigues and Garupe, we presume, are here to ‘set things right’.


“It is us, the white men.”

But it doesn’t exactly play out that way. The villagers are subject to questioning from a travelling “inquisitor”, and those who fail the tests — which involve stomping or spitting upon Christian relics — are tortured and executed while the two priests can only watch in futile horror. Things go from bad to worse when the two priests set out in search of Ferreira, instead finding themselves imprisoned by Japanese officials. Rather than enduring torture himself, Rodrigues is forced to watch as Japanese Christians are brutalised by a stern samurai (Issey Ogata) in an attempt to provoke the priest to renounce his faith. For a supposed saviour, Rodrigues’ mission is really ineffectual.

This is grounded in historical fact. Japan’s brutal response to Western intervention was ‘successful’ in that it established an isolationist policy that lasted centuries. But after years of consuming Western narratives where (white) outsiders succeed in edifying and enlightening more “primitive” populations, it feels unconventional and even unsatisfying. The white saviour trope isn’t the only thing that Silence challenges, however: it also resists the idea that this kind of martyrdom is meaningful.

Passion of the Priest

When Garupe and Rodrigues travel to Japan, they fully understand the risks of their journey. They seem to embrace the possibility of martyrdom. It is, after all, embedded in the very fabric of Christianity, founded on a man who sacrificed himself to save mankind.

Stories modelled on Christ’s sacrifice are a dime-a-dozen in pop culture. Heroes as diverse as Keanu Reeves in The Matrix series and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke sacrifice themselves for the greater good (usually assuming Christ’s pose of crucifixion at some point along the way). Sometimes these stories are called “Passion Plays”, and they resonate because they offer the enticing idea that our suffering, whatever form it takes, serves a greater purpose. The indiscriminate massacres of wartime are reimagined in films like Unbroken and Hacksaw Ridge — another film starring Andrew Garfield from a director with some knowledge of Passion Plays — into purposeful tales of noble sacrifice.

Silence suggests that these stories are, in part, prideful. As Rodrigues’ ordeal continues, he begins to doubt both his faith and his resolve to be sacrificed, wondering if he’s committing the sin of pride by comparing himself to Christ. But it also argues that these narratives are especially persuasive. The poor Japanese peasants are drawn to Catholicism because of what it offers: paradise. The idea that their suffering on Earth will be rewarded with joy in Heaven. The film demonstrates a deep, critical — and occasionally contradictory — understanding of faith. It’s no surprise from a director who once planned to become a priest himself.


How good’s religion!

Step by step, Silence carefully deconstructs the idea that all suffering has meaning. The peasants who refuse to spit or step on the fumi-e (a likeness of Jesus or Mary) and pay with their lives do not spread enlightenment. Their villages are destroyed, their culture obliterated. While the film is not relentlessly bleak, it offers no false optimism for the “secret Christians” of Japan; there’s no suggestion that their sacrifices are anything but desperately sad. Perhaps they are rewarded in the afterlife — for all its scepticism, there’s a reason that the film premiered at the Vatican — but on this plane, their misery is nothing but brutal and tragic.

There are too many layers to the film’s reflections on Catholicism to fully unpack here — someone could write a thesis on its representation of faith, particularly in the context of Scorsese’s career — but I do want to quickly single out Kichijiro’s character. He takes on a kind of Judas role, betraying his fellow Christians in return for meagre rewards. The cycle of betrayal-confession-rinse-repeat continues throughout the film, and suggests that, implemented poorly, the Catholic rite of confession is a fundamental flaw.

Worship and Wrongdoing

Kubozuka, the actor playing Kichijiro, offers a far more interesting performance than either Driver or Garfield. That can be said of most of the Japanese cast. Shin’ya Tsukamoto, as a devout peasant who gives his life for his faith, is heartbreakingly good; Tadanobu Asano makes a small role as an interpreter unforgettable; and Ogata deserved an Academy Award nomination for his fearsome, funny performance as Inquisitor Inoue. Driver and Garfield — both excellent actors — don’t deliver bad performances, but they lack the idiosyncratic humanity here that defines their best work. With Garfield, in particular, you’re constantly aware of him striving to evoke emotion rather than authentically portraying it.

Garfield picked up an Oscar nomination this year for his (admittedly superior) work in Hacksaw Ridge. But the only nomination for Silence was for Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, which might seem somewhat surprising given Scorsese’s track record for nominations since he won Best Picture and Best Director for The Departed.

All things considered, it’s not a big surprise. For starters, Silence simply isn’t a crowd-pleaser: its intimidating runtime (161 minutes), its subject matter and its relentless depiction of suffering isn’t going to draw the crowds or the votes. But it’s also simply that — for all its intellectual heft — the film feels like a lesser Scorsese. Despite taking literally decades to take the film from script to screen, there are moments that it feels unfinished — noticeable ADR (re-recorded dialogue), unconvincing effects, odd editing — in a way that’s uncharacteristic of the director’s work. (Full disclosure: I saw an early preview back in December, so it’s possible the version released to Australian cinemas has had some of the issues cleaned up.)

This could be explained by a rushed post-production — the film’s release was postponed enough times to suggest drama behind the scenes — but I think it’s also got something to do with the aesthetic approach Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker have opted for. The film adopts the rhythms of Japanese cinema — the peaceful, poetic pauses of Ozu or Naruse — which, frankly, feels ill-suited to the nervous kineticism of the pair’s best work. These are minor complaints, but as a lifelong Scorsese fanboy I couldn’t help but notice minor issues absent from earlier films.

While I might nitpick Garfield’s performance or some editing choices, it’s hard to fault the film as a whole. Prieto’s lensing is legitimately magnificent — landscapes that could’ve been rendered as picturesque are instead granted a forbidding spikiness that rhymes with the screenplay’s conception of Japan as a land hostile to Christianity — and the screenplay is a real highlight. Silence is a thoughtful exploration of suffering, Catholicism and colonialism that rewards consideration… if you can stomach suffering through the three-hour runtime.

Silence is in cinemas from Thursday February 16.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.