“Why have you forsaken me?”
I normally don’t hold religious films in high esteem for the simple reason that recent fare have been manipulative snakes preying on the regular Sunday crowd. I’m far more interested in religious movies that ask far more complex questions about faith, about persecution (real ones, not saying “Happy Holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas”), and about asking God for forgiveness. Well, leave it to Martin Scorsese to come in with his latest film about Christianity since his own The Last Temptation of Christ.
Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) are two Jesuit missionaries from Portugal that volunteer to find the missing Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in Japan. News has broken out that Japan has begun a purge of all Christians on the island and that several priests now lay dead. Ferreira is the last priest to have been heard from and now rumors abound that he has renounced God in public and has become a Japanese citizen. In disbelief their mentor would apostatize, Rodrigues and Garrpe seek him out in on the island nation in the 1640s, but end up finding that Christian populace has now been worshiping Christ in secret and Ferreira is nowhere to be found. But the missionaries’ hunt for Ferreira takes them down a path filled with death, despair, and the ultimate test against their faith.
You might think that when I said “ultimate test against their faith” it will ultimately conclude with some reaffirmation about Christianity, but the masterstroke of this film is that it doesn’t do that. This film is a straight up gauntlet on forcing people to confront multiple difficult questions, such as: with so much suffering in the world, are your prayers falling on deaf ears? Can a culture be so alien to your way of thinking that it could fundamentally misunderstand your belief system? Are you holding to your religious convictions out of faith or out of pride?
Like I said, these are not easy questions to answer but relentlessly intriguing to discuss. But to do that right in a film you need a director who could balance the big ideas with a solid story. Mercifully, we have one of the greatest living directors at the helm here for this movie and Scorsese delivers the goods for the most part. His choice in cinematography and dedication to managing his actors is emblematic of his fervor for the source material, a book by Shūsaku Endō, that has been rummaging around Scorsese’s most wanted projects for the latter part of two decades. Everything from beautiful shots, to the sound design, and attention to detail to get the style of the Jesuit missionaries as well as the Japanese culture are given their proper due. You can feel the relief Scorsese must be feeling in getting the questions he was posing to himself off of his chest with every frame of the film…even if he goes overboard.
Thus bringing us to the biggest problem with this movie, it’s too damn long. Clocking in at two hours and forty-seven minutes, it’s clearly the work of an auteur director. Granted, it’s a choice made by a director who can afford to take chances with his project (including the fact he’s shooting this on a less than $45 million budget), but ambition may have blinded to major narrative issues. The questions posed by the film that I mentioned earlier don’t come into play until an hour and ten minutes pass. But on the other hand, that first hour sets up highly important details that affect the conclusions this film reaches for, namely patience for new converts and major cultural misunderstandings.
Now I’m not a film director (obviously, I think someone in Hollywood would have punched me in the balls for any one of my ideas), but the length of a film can weigh on people’s enjoyment of a finished product, regardless of how great the rest of the movie was. People still joke about Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and its thirty three endings for good reason even when critics and audiences loved the final film in the series. So to that end, I’m cautioning the length of Silence did not bother me personally, and perhaps there are portions in the first hour I could see getting cut our for the sake of time, but ultimately the length wasn’t a deal breaker for me.
Mostly because this portion of the film takes great pains to set up the characters of Rodrigues and Garrpe before we end up following Garfield’s Rodrigues in the much important second half of the film. Speaking of which, Garfield has once again demonstrated that my faith in him was not misplaced after his award caliber performance in 99 Homes. While his accent is a bit inconsistent, you can feel every ounce of pain he’s dealing with in reconciling his faith with what’s he’s seeing. The anguish in Garfield’s face alongside his bursts of frustration when confronted with the real possibility he’s about to die while in the presence of devout Christian followers portrays a complex and deeply flawed character.
As I’ve said countless times, flaws in a character are absolutely essential for us to relate to them. It’s why Jesus-like characters are boring and uninteresting in many films, they don’t change and they make the world seem overly simplistic. Contrasting Garfield’s character here with his turn in Hacksaw Ridge is also enlightening, because you can tell how much effort he puts into each role but he comes across much stronger in Silence thanks to the excellent script where his character must debate with others and even himself on the limits of his own belief.
The Japanese cast are all incredible while I’m gushing about actors. Tadanobu Asano plays an interpreter to the Japanese Inquisition rooting out Christians in Japan, and his relationship with Rodrigues is far more complex than a stereotypical guard-prisoner duet. He’s constantly goading Garfield’s character to apostatize and not going strictly the route of temptation, but straight up psychological warfare. Honestly, this guy performs some pretty detestable acts…and yet he’s keenly aware of how terrible his actions are. He rationalizes them in a way that’s genuinely frightening, though not as scary as the calm demeanor from his supervisor, the Inquisitor himself (Issey Ogata). Portraying the real life figure, the calmness he speaks to Rodrigues with was on par with Christoph Waltz’s turn as the Jew Hunter in Inglourious Basterds, only able to rationalize his actions through thoughtful debate with Rodrigues.
The final key component of the Japanese cast comes from Yōsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, a Japanese convert to Christianity who renounced God when his own life was on the line. While he expresses regret for what he did initially, he begs to Garfield’s character for forgiveness…then goes right back on his vow…again and again. Garfield kills in these scenes as well, growing more exasperated with the poor soul with each passing moment but still pushing on forward to forgive Kichijiro on behalf of God. Kubozuka left a bigger impact on me than even Adam Driver, who still turned in another solid performance even though he’s not as big of a focus as Garfield is.
Though, Driver does offer a great counter to Garfield’s character as someone who truly tries to practice what he preaches without a hint of doubt, thus putting Garfield’s character in an even bigger bind. And Liam Neeson is freaking great. Of course he is, I just salivated all over the guy just earlier this week. But his role in the story is to serve as a powerful force in the climax that makes you really, really think about what he did was the right thing to do and whether you would have done the same in a similar situation.
I should point out that Neeson’s character is based on an actual historical figure that I was not aware of. I guess my Jesuit education either neglected to bring this part up during our Catholic history class or downplayed its importance. But I do hope religious schools in the future do talk about this film in their studies, but preferably for the older teenagers. Honestly, not since when I read The Sunflower in college that I really had to have an internal debate with myself on what my religion demands, what my heart desires, and what my mind will rationalize as the best choice if I were thrust into a similar situation as Rodrigues was in Silence.
I hate seeing the world in black and white, I prefer to see it in shades of gray because life is extremely complicated. You can put on a brave face and proudly tell people what you believe when you’re in the safe and comfort of like minded individuals…but try saying that shit in a hostile environment and suddenly fear has taken over your mind. You suddenly have to ask yourself are your beliefs are truly in service to God or are you simply satisfying your own pride? Or can you see if your beliefs are being manipulated by other parties for their own selfish ends?
Damn, I love where this movie is taking me inside my mind. This is the reason why I’m recommending people to see this film and why it’s deserving of a place on my Best of the Year list next week. Not only is it a technical marvel from a highly talented director with a solid cast, but because it can lead to many intriguing conversations about people’s faith or lack thereof. I still recognize the length aspect holds this film back for me from falling completely in love with the presentation, even as Scorsese went to great lengths to have his actors understand what makes the Jesuit missionaries so unique and even giving an appropriate angle for the Japanese that make them look less like antagonists but rather an environment that simply would not accept the lesson of Christ…even when they claim to want to. I’m giving this a low…