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Scorsese’s SILENCE Asks You to Suffer…In a Good Way? (Review)

Scorsese’s SILENCE Asks You to Suffer…In a Good Way? (Review)

Editor’s Note: this review contains minor spoilers — read at your own risk!

Martin Scorsese wants you to have a debate about religion with him.

Here’s the thing—you are probably not ready to talk Catholic theology versus Buddhism with the director of The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. So he is going to make you ready before he’ll let you have the intellectual and theological battle of ideas. And this is why Silence runs two hours and 41 minutes.

It’s a tough sit, and it’s meant to be: the director wants you to feel the suffering and the subdued impatience of his Catholic priests secretly entering Japan, only to be ultimately captured and tortured into possible renunciation. Only after you’ve done this for two hours, a.k.a. an eternity in movie time, are you ready to come at the big questions with the semblance of experience. What would you, then, consider the best way of serving Christ in a land hostile to him be? Should you double-down on your theology, knowing many of the peasants are open to it but the ruling class may confine you forever? Maybe be Christlike in example, without actually mentioning God or the Bible? Or ditch your faith altogether, in the belief that an eastern culture is simply incompatible with a western religion in fundamental, unchangeable ways?

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It doesn’t matter where your opinion falls; the point is that you’ll have one. Scorsese is seeking clarity rather than agreement, though in casting an appealing, sensitive guy like Andrew Garfield as his Catholic lead, he may be stacking the deck just a touch. Garfield’s Sebastião Rodrigues and Adam Driver‘s Francisco Garrpe are Portuguese priests who hear, from a letter that may or may not be reliable, that their mentor Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson, hilariously not bothering with the Portuguese accent his costars both attempt) has crumbled under torture in Japan, having renounced his faith to live as a Japanese family man—a Judas priest, you might say. The journey will be dangerous, as Japan is in full persecute-the-foreign-missionaries-using-boiling-water mode, but Rodrigues and Garrpe cannot believe what they hear about their mentor, and must see for themselves.

The original novel, by Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo, moves at a much faster pace, at 212 pages and a more to-the-point storytelling style. As such, it may be advisable to read it first in order to appreciate the ways in which Scorsese has not abbreviated it, though he has changed the focus somewhat. Endo was more interested in the notion that Christianity must culturally adapt, while Scorsese seems to wonder if it’s all worth it. But then Endo may well have assumed he was writing more to the faithful; Scorsese knows he isn’t, and is going to bring you in on an emotional bed of nails (yes, that’s the wrong religion’s metaphor, but “crown of thorns” doesn’t work quite as well in that context).

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With the aid of a cowardly, drunken navigator named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka, adding the closest thing this movie has to comic relief), the padres enter the country only to find large numbers of rural peasants who are secret Christians embracing them with open arms. To those living miserable lives in the countryside, the promise of eternal life in Jesus is a rare cause for optimism, though it is also extremely punishable by authorities who might get wind of it. It’s at this point that those looking for an Apocalypse Now-type quest narrative might become disappointed: rather than staying focused on the goal of finding Ferreira, the priests focus on bringing the faith to as many locals as possible. Yes, Ferreira will ultimately show up onscreen, as one does not simply cast Liam Neeson in order to never use him. But he shows up when he chooses to, and not because he is “found.”

Eventually Rodrigues is captured, and the second half of the film involves him being caged, watching fellow faithful tortured, and engaging in intellectual/theological debates with a Grand Inquisitor named Inoue (a highly Oscar-worthy Issey Ogata). The film does not make it as clear as the book does that Inoue is himself a former Christian, but it never falls into the trap of making him a typical religious (or anti-religious) fundamentalist. He’s a canny operator who may look and sound a bit like the buck-toothed western caricatures of east Asians, but he’ll find ways to eat at any and all doubts that a Catholic God is truly listening. It’s entirely possible to come out of Silence siding with the Japanese against these invaders who wish to change the culture; they don’t even ask for genuine apostasy, only a symbolic gesture that doesn’t even have to be heartfelt (stepping on a picture of Jesus).

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How much you appreciate what Silence does depends a lot upon your own appetite for theology. Visually, the movie is atmospheric in the extreme, half rainy jungle and half parched prison desert, but you’ll only be wowed by that for so long if the meditations on faith are of no interest. Driver and Garfield clearly starved themselves for the roles, yet it’s Ogata, who does nothing more than play his antagonist character as a fully realized human being, that leaves the strongest impression.

I don’t believe that I’ll ever watch it again for fun, but I appreciate what Silence is trying to do.

3.5 burritos out of 5:

3.5 burritos

Images: Kerry Brown for Paramount


Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor and part of the L.A. Film Critics Association. Follow him @LYTrules.

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