It’s just a formality, really. Very easy to do. Easier than walking.
These are the quiet solicitations of the Inquisitor, a character in Martin Scorsese’s new drama Silence. The Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata, is in charge of persecuting Christians in 17th century Japan. Japan’s Edict of Expulsion of 1614 attempted to eradicate Christianity from its islands. The Inquisitor tortures and kills Christians, but also cajoles with cold ruthlessness. Presenting believers with a plaque with either Jesus or Mary on it, he places it on the ground and tells them: step on it to renounce your faith. It’s a very simple motion, he says. Just one step. Nothing to it.
Who apostatizes and who doesn’t, and why, is at the heart of Silence, an often brilliant if overly long film. The movie has been a passion project of Scorsese’s that has taken years to develop. Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence is an incredibly powerful, often mesmerizing meditation about religious persecution. It’s also a film with great relevance in light of recent attacks on religious freedom in the West, coming down firmly on the side of freedom. This is probably why Silence has been so far shut out of Hollywood’s awards season. Spoiler alert: I will be giving away key plot points and the theological meaning of the climax of the film, so turn away if you plan on seeing it.
It’s 1643 and two young Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to Japan to find Father Cristavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared in Japan after reportedly renouncing his faith. Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are given permission to go to Japan and search for him.
It quickly becomes evident that Silence is not your father’s Martin Scorsese movie. Absent are the kinetic camera, heavy profanity, and rock and roll score that were the mark of films such as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. The score by Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge is so minimalist as to be barely there. The director’s virtuoso shots have been replaced by still, steady camera work that allow the action to unfold, and an almost total absence of a musical score. This correlates to Fr. Rodrigues’ bouts of despair over what he interprets as the “silence” of God. The film was shot at rugged and dangerous locations in Taiwan, with cinematographer Rodrigo Preto capturing the stark and barren yet beautiful landscape. While the Christians are forced into silence, and the priests ponder the silence of God, nature unforgivingly rages around them.
The first half of Silence is an immersive depiction of pre-modern missionary work. Fathers Rodrigues and and Garupe endure a dangerous sea voyage and arrive in Japan to find a small group of “Kakure Kirishitan,” or “hidden Christians.” The followers’ terror turns to jubilation when the priests arrive. These early scenes are Scorsese the master filmmaker at his best. Close-ups of hands distributing rosary beads highlight the tangible, sacramental nature of Catholicism. Garfield, who has the majority of screen time and is really the star of the film, is convincing as the pious yet humble Father Rodrigues. The supporting cast is also strong, particularly Yoshi Oida as believer Ichizo. Silence reaches a climax past the halfway mark when Ichizo and two others are tied on crosses on the beach and left to drown as the high tide comes in. There is no driving score to push emotions, just tight, unbearably long takes of Ichizo’s gasping as his torso is pounded by waves. He ends his life singing a hymn.
On the other end of the spectrum is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a Christian who, threatened with torture or death, apostatizes over and other again. There is a comic element to Kichijiro, but also a lesson about grace. He repeatedly appears to Father Rodrigues for absolution, until Rodrigues himself starts to lose patience. Yet he faithfully absolves Kichijiro over and over. Finally, Father Rodriques finds Father Ferreira, who has truly apostatized, embracing Buddhism and adopting a dead man’s wife and children. Father Ferreira argues that Christianity “is of no use in Japan,” as the natives believe that the son of God means the sun of God. It all leads, finally, to a grimly riveting encounter between the young priest and none other than the long-lost Father Cristovao (Liam Neeson).
Had Scorsese cut back 20-30 minutes, he may have been able to place Silence alongside his other masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Yet the film drags in its second half, with several drawn-out scenes repeating the Inquisitor’s demand that believers step on Catholic icons. Then the Inquisitor presents Father Rodrigues with a horrible scene, four Christians wrapped and being hung upside-down over a latrine, their necks cut to slowly bleed to death. This is your doing, the Inquisitor tells Fr. Rodrigues. You can make this stop. All you have to do is step on the face of Jesus. It is here that Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ, telling him it is acceptable to save the others by seeming to betray his faith. “I carry your pain,” Jesus says, “It’s OK.” Or is Rodrigues actually hallucinating? We’re never given a definitive answer, and that allowance for speculation or the reality of the mystical and often confounding world between man and the supernatural is a graceful touch.
In its final scenes, and particularly its final shot, Silence unforgettably makes the argument that even the worst kind of torture cannot erase the belief that is in the human heart, particularly if that belief is based on universal ideas about the metaphysical power of love and forgiveness.