'Silence' Review: Martin Scorsese's Grim, Eloquent Study of Faith and Doubt

By Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

For many decades, the struggle, and sometimes the glory, of religious belief was a continuing preoccupation for numerous major film directors, from John Ford, Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage and Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood to Carl Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and, in his own perverse way, Luis Bunuel internationally. In recent times, however, apart from faith-based filmmaking for a target audience, from which no known auteurs have yet emerged, religion as a recurring and serious topic has virtually disappeared from the American screen, except in certain works by Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese.

In the long-gestating Silence, the latter has arguably made his most focused and searching exploration of the subject that has been both an explicit and implicit driving force behind many of his films. Not all dream projects turn out well, but this one comes within shouting distance.

The film is shot in a restrained, classical style, with very few of the director’s virtuoso camera and editing moves. It’s also resolutely, even single-mindedly focused on its central theme, creating an unvarying dramatic temperature and tone that is only relieved somewhat in the second half. Scorsese’s reputation and some strong critical support will assure interest among discerning big city audiences for this Paramount release, but the work’s grim nature and imposing length will likely keep the masses away.

Based on Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed and enduring 1966 novel, which was made into a well-received Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda five years later, Scorsese’s version is, to a bit of a fault, almost exclusively concerned with the issue reflected by the book’s title — that is, God’s deafening, soul-churning, doubt-and-madness producing silence in the face of both endless human suffering and the devout’s unceasing efforts to receive some form of divine guidance as regards to their earthly endeavors.

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To explore this weighty, endlessly ponderable conundrum, Endo, a Japanese Catholic, used the real history of Japan’s Edict of Expulsion of 1614, designed to ban and eradicate Christianity from its islands, a policy pursued mercilessly. Into the perilous fray, in 1643, sneak two young Portuguese Jesuit priests who, while trying to aid the renegade faithful along the way, are mainly aiming to track down the eminent Father Cristavao Ferreira, a revered pioneering priest in Japan who has reportedly renounced his faith and of late has gone silent.

The brave and foolhardy army of two consists of Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who embark from a positively poisonous-looking Macao to be dumped off the perilous Japaneses coast. They get an appetizer of misfortunes to come as they suffer from cold, hunger and general miserableness. But they do happen upon a forlorn Christian cult that takes them in, and among them is a bedraggled English-speaking interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) able to brief them on the dire circumstances now facing those who continue to follow a foreign deity in Nippon.

Soaked as it is in squalor and the seeming hopelessness of the priests’ journey, the film has some trouble achieving lift-off; the two priests are characterized only by their tenacious belief and dogged endurance, traits strenuously and somewhat monotonously underlined by Garfield and Driver to the virtual exclusion of all other human qualities. Through this first stretch, at least, the film’s narrow focus, along with the priests’ aggravated earnestness, invite a certain tedium, just as their cause seems all but hopeless.

Capture for Christians under these circumstances means one thing, the demand to apostatize, a renunciation of faith made easy by the authorities; all you have to do is step on a small plate bearing Jesus’ likeness. But you never know; some apologists get off the hook but others are executed anyway and in ingenious ways designed expressly to prolong the agony, including crucifixion on crosses placed in a harbor where the tide will eventually rise to head-level, and being suspended in a coffin-sized hole with your neck pierced in a manner that the blood will drip, drop by drop, for ages until you die. Scorsese makes these scenes plenty visceral but fortunately knows where to draw the line. When Sebastaio is offered 300 pieces of silver to renounce Christ, he ruefully notes that this is a hundred times more than Judas was paid to betray Jesus.

Working on very rugged locations in Taiwan, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto strongly evoke a physical setting as forbidding and inhospitable as the authorities who rule it; the visuals incorporate beauty where it is to be found, but mainly inject it with a sense of nature’s sublime indifference and potential for terror. Working in league with this is a subdued, minimalist score by Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge which, incidentally, is nothing like the jangly, propulsively modern music featured in the film’s trailer, which fortunately is nowhere to be heard in the finished work itself.

At length, Sebastaio and Francisco come to a parting of the ways, leaving the former to forge ahead alone. The solo explorer comes upon another Christian enclave in a remote fishing village, but is soon betrayed, arrested and jailed while awaiting trial, an experience that convinces his feverish mind that he is now following in Jesus’ footsteps. “I will not abandon you,” he avows.

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Except perhaps in a musical by Gilbert and Sullivan, one would not expect a character called The Inquisitor to figure as comic relief, but so it is with the one played here with exquisite high humor by Issey Ogata. Inquisitor Inoue exercises the gravest powers, the ability to decide anyone’s life or death, but Ogata, a veteran actor working in Japanese and English, makes him a man keen to enjoy his work, especially when it offers the prospect of a lively debate in which he holds the upper hand.

Blithely telling his prisoner that Christianity “is of no use in Japan” and confident that he can get even this intense young man to apostatize, the Inquisitor wants to keep Sebastaio around for a while, during which time some believers hung upside down to be bled dry provide a constant motivation to repent and be done with it. The way this grisly test of Sebastiao’s belief is crossed with the Inquisitor’s blithe humor proves terrifically effective. It all leads, finally, to a grimly riveting encounter between the young priest and none other than the long-lost Father Cristovao (Liam Neeson), who lays it all on the table about how he dealt with the same mighty challenge facing Sebastiao now and the prospects for their religion in Japan (where not long before there had been between 200-300,000 Christians).

Ultimately, then, despite the bumpiness of the initial stretch and the intense but narrow conception of the leading roles, Silence gets to where it wants to go, which is to stand as Scorsese’s own reckoning with the religion he was raised in and takes seriously, and which has arguably fueled so much of the inner turmoil and angst that has marked much of his work; this can rightly be regarded as a considerable feat. Germinating — one might even say festering — inside him for 26 years (Jay Cocks and Scorsese wrote their first draft of the script eons ago), Silence, more successfully than not, artfully addresses the core issue of its maker’s lifelong religious struggle. He has flirted with and danced around the subject in many of his other films, most often those featuring transgressive and violent characters, but of his explicitly religious dramas, specifically including Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, this is, by a considerable distance, the most eloquent and coherent.

Opens: December 23 (Paramount)

Production: EFO Fims, YLK, G&G, Sikelia, Fabrica de Cine

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka

Director: Martin Scorsese

Screenwriters: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo

Producers: Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Randall Emmett, Barbara De Fina, Gaston Pavlovich, Irwin Winkler, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, David Lee

Executive producers: Dale A. Brown, Matthew Maleck, Manu Gargi, Tyler Zacharia, Ken Kao, Dan Kao, Niels Juul, Chad A. Verdi, Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Lawrence Bender, Stuart Ford

Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto

Production designer: Dante Ferreti

Costume designer: Dante Ferreti

Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker

Music: Kim Allen Kluge, Kathryn Kluge

Visual effects supervisor: Pablo Helman

Casting: Ellen Lewis

R rating, 162 minutes