Silence, Scorsese’s 24th feature film, starts in darkness. Ambience rises, the sounds of the Japanese countryside, with birds tweeting, wind breezing. And then cut. The title. Silence.
This simple sequence appears confusing. And yet it acts as an allegory for the schism that lays at the heart of Scorsese’s religious epic. The Japanese natural world, the beliefs that arise from this, and how these act against the Christian faith taking a hold in Japanese culture at the time, a faith that the protagonist Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) even questions as ‘praying to silence’.
From this, we witness an epic journey, a blissful exploration of identity and freedom of belief, and a stunningly crafted cinematic masterpiece from a director at the peak of his craft. Scorsese is of a dying breed. One of the last, true American auteurs. And in Silence, we see him using every ounce of his talent to construct a measured, powerful and haunting movie, one that deserves all the attention it can garner.
Attention it has certainly, already attained however. Scorsese has been working on this project for 28 years, struggling with the dense source material, in Shusaku Endo’s book of the same name. It follows the expedition of two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (the aforementioned Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), travelling to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), and to discover whether the scandalous word spread about his apostasy is in fact true. What they discover upon their quest is far more brutal: villages and towns populated by indigenous people, whose Christian beliefs are forced into hiding as a result of the increased use of punishment, for all those who admit to worshipping the outlawed religion.
From this, Scorsese builds a complex web of shocking moments juxtaposed with sequences of tranquil beauty, a contrast between the brutality of this period and the peaceful environment that this terror inhabited. One reminisces of the works of Kenji Mizoguchi in this regard, and can recognise his influence upon the film’s aesthetic. Silence is subtly absent of Scorsese’s typical flourishes: Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing lacks in the pace it usually embellishes, instead steadying itself to admire the stunning scenery and attention to detail, in terms of set and costume, on show here. This harkens back to the visual poetry on show in films such as Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho The Bailiff, basking in Japanese culture, used to create an overwhelming presence so suggestive of its imposition upon the indigenous people. There is also an influence of Conrad, with the exploration of a foreign situation evocative of stories such as Heart of Darkness, and the horrors discovered during this time.
However, do not think that the film is absent of Scorsese’s touch. Its religious themes have appeared in a number of his previous films, most notably in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997’s Kundun. What we see in Silence, as indicated by the religious spread of his previous films, is the sense that no side is taken. Scorsese makes it his aim to show both sides of the argument: while we may relate and sympathise with Rodrigues on his path, we are ultimately brought to question his motives, and whether his restless, unbreakable spirit is in fact viable. The subtle nature of Scorsese’s storytelling here is its greatest feat, and demonstrates that no filmmaker has come close to matching the breadth of human emotion that he can explore.
It isn’t just Scorsese that shines however. Garfield has established his expertise in acting, in roles such as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. But it is in this that he truly shines, capturing a fragility to a man who starts off truly believing in one cause, and having his beliefs shaken to the core as the journey continues on. His performance enhances the themes that Scorsese plays with: the suffering that the indigenous people must endure, in order to preserve Rodrigues’ journey to spread the faith of Christianity over Japan once more, is one that toils on his mind. Garfield captures this with supreme authenticity, and proves to be the perfect boatswain to the ambitious ship that is Scorsese’s Silence. While Driver and Neeson prove themselves to be worthy of their reputation in this project also, it is the Japanese co-stars that also lay at the heart of Silence’s darkest moments. Issey Ogata, who plays the Christian denying Inoue Masashige, and Yōsuke Kubozuka, who plays the Judas doppelgänger Kichijiro, are the standouts to admire among a talented and diverse cast. Ogata, in particular, snarls his way through every scene he inhabits, forming a brooding, dominant force that charges through the narrative, leaving all others to submit to his presence.
However, despite the significance of the performances in carrying the narrative afloat, it is Scorsese who is the true voice of this film, the magnum opus to his already vibrant and admirable career. Aspiring to a lofty exploration of the difficulties in culture and the right to the freedom of belief, Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the terror that comes from this sort of conflict. This long gestating project has culminated in a tragic, expansive tale, and despite its diversion from Scorsese’s typical style, we can recognise the personal nature of his storytelling. It may be challenging, it may be somber, but it is a truly rewarding experience, one that simultaneously captures the beauty of the Japanese civilization and its darker historical moments.