Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is long, beautifully photographed, often silent, and mostly pointless.
Two 17th-century Jesuits from Portugal, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), hear about the torture and killing of their fellow priests in Shogun-era Japan—which is resisting the conversion of its people by any means necessary—as well as the supposed apostasy of their mentor, Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson), who, it is rumored, has not only renounced Christ but taken a Japanese wife, and ... they don’t buy it. They demand to travel to Japan to see and possibly rescue their mentor.
Everyone in the audience: “Bad idea.”
The rest of the movie, 2 hours and 40 minutes worth, is about what a bad idea it is.
Fire and water
We’ve already seen some of the torture—the modern-day crucifixions at the hot springs, in which scalding water, drip by drip, is poured onto the priests—but our guys haven’t, and they’re somewhat naďve. They’ll soon lose that. Along with everything else.
They’re guided to the coast of Japan by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a begrimed, half-mad Japanese they meet in Hong Kong, who lost his wife and family years earlier. In flashback, and in a test we see repeated throughout the movie, officials demand that they prove they’re not Christians by stepping on an image of Christ. Kichijiro does, the rest of his family doesn’t; so he goes free and they’re wrapped in hay and burned alive on the beach. For all that tragedy, Kichijiro winds up almost a comical figure in the movie: ready to traduce the priests and renounce Christ one moment, then unable to live with himself and scurrying back for absolution.
In Japan, the Jesuits are greeted gratefully and reverently by the villagers, who, it turns out, are often better Christians than they are: feeding, sheltering, sacrificing. But word gets out, and officials, led by the grunting Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and the initially silent, increasingly creepy Inoue (Issei Ogata), descend. Rodrigues has already counseled the village elders to step on the image of Christ to save themselves, and they do. But it’s all so easy. So Inoue changes the rules: They must spit on the image and curse the Virgin Mary as a whore. This they cannot do—except for Kichijiro, of course. The other three are tied to crosses and left to die of exposure and/or drowning with the coming tide That’s basically most of the movie: die by fire or water. Pick your poison.
After the two priests split up, we follow Rodrigues, who is betrayed by Kichijiro, captured, and broken down over months and years. Rather than kill him, and thus martyr him, the officials kill helpless Japanese because he’s not submitting to their will. At one point, from a distance, Rodrigues sees Garupe on the beach sacrifice himself for his flock, who are wrapped in hay, rowed into the ocean, and tossed overboard to drown. Garupe swims to save them but is drowned himself. Rodrigues cries to the heavens at the injustice.
That’s one of the oddities for me. Given the alternatives, Garupe’s death isn’t bad: It’s for a cause and doesn’t involve bodily torture. Yet there’s Rodrigues, crying to the heavens. This happens often. Rodrigues’ emotional reactions don’t quite mesh. At one point he seems to go mad—briefly—and I’m not sure why. Were scenes cut?
Eventually, Rodrigues comes face to face with Father Ferriera and learns that all the rumors are true: a wife taken, Christ renounced. Then Ferriera tries to convince Rodrigues to follow the same path of apostasy. We get more torture of others. Meanwhile, despite Rodrigues’ fervent prayers, God is silent.
But God, or at least Scorsese, gets in the last quiet word.
Silence vs. Waiting
At the very end, after Rodrigues’ conversion, and after he and Ferriera become, in essence, border agents for the officials—ensuring that no Christian icons, not to mention Christians, make it into the country—and after Ferriera’s death, and while Rodrigues himself is dying, once again we hear Rodrigues’ complaint about God’s silence. But then we hear another voice telling Rodrigues what he can’t hear: That He was never silent; that He was always next to him; that He suffered along with him. It’s the voice of God.
That’s an answer to the dilemma, I suppose: God hears, we can’t. It’s not a bad answer for someone like Scorsese, who once considered becoming a priest, and who has grappled with religious issues in both life and on film (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Kundun”). It may even be true. But it’s not particularly satisfying to a secularist like me.
A more satisfying rationale comes from someone I know, Craig Wright, a playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and minister, who, 20 years ago, wrote a song called “Heaven,” in which the singer asks the same question Rodrigues does. Except the metaphor is different: not silence but waiting:
All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all
The answer, an alley-oop, doesn’t come via an 11th-hour deus ex machina, as Scorsese’s does, but through the singer’s own thought processes:
Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
That thought turns the bad into the blissful. “Silence” doesn’t do that for me. The final shot of Rodrigues, dead and stuffed into a barrel-sized Japanese coffin, but still, unseen, clutching the homemade crucifix in his hand, is that ... redemption? It indicates the Japanese didn’t break his spirit. Just everything else.