Although visually stunning, Silence is emotionally flat, overlong and turgid. Falls far short of its ambition.
Uh oh. In what seems a fair way into Silence I’m checking my watch – I was hoping it was nearing the end, but there’s an hour to go. Must be a masterpiece.
The story goes that Martin Scorsese has been obsessing for 20 years over Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence, and has long aspired to adapt it to screen. Well, here it is, but contrary to expectations, this “passion project” is not the crowning glory of his directing career. Some stunning cinematography aside, Silence falls way short of its lofty ambition. It’s emotionally flat, overlong and turgid. And surprisingly, it seems half-baked in terms of its gestation, as if Scorcese needed a few more drafts to bring whatever he’s trying to express over the long, slow course of the film into sharp focus.
The lead character, Jesuit padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), has journeyed with fellow padre Garrpe (Adam Driver) to 17th century Japan, where Christianity is outlawed, to save the soul and reputation of their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira has apparently succumbed to torture and renounced Catholicism for Buddhism.
The padres are hidden at great risk by local secretly-practising peasant Christians. Betrayed by a Judas figure Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), they’re separated, and the focus is trained on Rodrigues, who undergoes a terrible trial in which his faith is tested. The parallels with Calvary are unmistakable, and hammered home with a sledgehammer when Rodrigues gazes into a pool and sees his image change to Christ’s. However, Rodrigues’ Calvary is a more complex affair. He craves the glory of martyrdom, but it is not his own physical suffering he must endure. Rather, it is that of his peasant protectors, whose torture and executions he is forced to witness, while a government Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) urges him to save them by renouncing his faith. Most of the movie is taken up thus, with Rodrigues agonising…and agonising…and agonising…over the slowly extracted human price of his religious fidelity.
It’s hard to feel much for him (which in turn makes it hard to care about the film). His refusal to apostasise seems stupidly stubborn and self-serving and begs a question that throws the validity of his spiritual trial into grave doubt: what sort of God would approve of his decision to sacrifice his loyal peasant protectors thus? Would a merciful God not see into his heart, and know that his public renunciation of his faith for the sake of the local Christians who had harboured him was an honourable act of compassion, not a betrayal? How can Rodrigues really believe his God would sanction the monstrous suffering of scores of Christian peasants in the cause of testing the faith of a single white padre?
Yet, it seems to be so. This speaks to a type of cultural arrogance/imperialism that runs through the film – and there is no sense that Scorsese is even remotely aware of it. The Christian peasants do not exist as characters. No attempt is made to individualise them; their suffering and deaths are mere collateral damage. The main game is Rodrigues’s spiritual trial, and the unfortunate peasants serve as torture instruments.
Two-thirds of the way through, there is an extended Socratic-style dialogue between Rodrigues and the Inquisitor, which is by far the most interesting part of the movie, but further highlights its cultural bias. The Inquisitor describes Japan as a “swamp” where Christianity cannot take root (not much of a metaphor, but let’s not get caught up on that). Rodrigues insists that Christianity is a universal faith for all nations, implicitly sweeping aside the centuries of Buddhism inextricably embedded in Japanese culture, which of course does not accommodate his view.
The scene is weighted against the Inquisitor because of the way he is presented: he is a creature of nightmare, outwardly avuncular, gently spoken and given to smiling sweetly, yet the author of the most terrible and exotic brutality in his dealings with the Christian peasants (which, it has to be said, borrows from the WW2 image of the Japanese, whether consciously or otherwise).
And in the final scene of the film, there is a sting in the tail (no details – that would be spoiling), which amounts to a Catholic triumphalism over the heathen Japanese and their inferior Buddhism. Cheap and mean-spirited in my view, and I think unbecoming for a director of Scorsese’s stature.
Maybe the novel is too intricate for successful adaptation to screen. Maybe Scorsese overthought it. Maybe he has come to believe in his own myth, a lethal trap for any artist, so often resulting in self-indulgence and grandiosity. Whatever, Silence is a long-winded disappointment, rather than the pièce de résistance for which so many of Scorsese’s fans – me included – were hoping.
Silence features: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson, Yosuke Kubozuka
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese (screenplay), Shûsaku Endô (novel)
Runtime: 161 min
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