Celebrated director releases moving film about Jesuit in Japan
THE SANTA CLARA
January 11, 2017
With captivating performances and stunning visuals, “Silence” represents the best in cinema and deserves a place among 2016’s top films. That said, a word of caution is in order. Unlike the popcorn fare served by many of its competitors, “Silence” is not an easy experience to digest. Its story, however, haunts the viewer beyond the theatre and inspires closer reflection on questions of faith and suffering.
The film is a passion-project of acclaimed director Martin Scorsese and several decades in the making. The Italian-American filmmaker, raised Catholic, read the 1966 book of the same name by Shūsaku Endō back in 1989 and diligently pursued its development for the screen.
“Silence” is set in 17th century Japan when tensions run high in the country. There’s suspicion towards anything foreign or foreign-related after a revolt known as the Shimabara Rebellion, which was led primarily by Japanese Catholics, was crushed by the Buddhist government.
As a result, officials aggressively persecuted Catholics in the country—think scalding water, crucifixions, being burned alive—you know, standard torture treatment. The film graphically depicts how Japanese converts face certain death if they do not renounce their faith by stepping on a “fumie,” a religious image often depicting Christ’s crucifixion.
The story really begins though, with two Jesuits in China—Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) and Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield)— grappling with unsettling news: the two learn that their beloved mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after attempting to continue the Jesuit mission in Japan, has reportedly renounced his religion. What would make someone who was so fervent in his beliefs and faith suddenly cast everything aside? The question drives the film’s gripping narrative.
The two priests, so sure of Father Ferreira and his commitment to Catholicism, cannot even fathom such a report to even be true. Nonetheless, in a manner eerily akin to the famed novella “Heart of Darkness” (and accordingly, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”), the pair sets out for Japan in a quest of discovery.
As soon as they enter the country, Rodrigues and Garrpe find themselves quickly sidetracked, encountering poor peasant villages full of Catholics in hiding. Ministering to these people, the priests witness first-hand how faith has transformed these peasants’ lives, giving them a sense of fulfillment and comfort in their relentless struggles in feudal Japan.
Yet when Rodrigues and Garrpe meet the brutal local officials keen on stamping out Christianity, the two Jesuits find themselves questioning whether or not spreading the faith is worth the grueling torture that the Catholics in the country continually face. Are these Jesuits offering any salvation through their faith, or are they just putting these people through further agony? Where is God in their suffering?
All of the acting in the film is phenomenal, especially on Garfield’s part. The actor prepared for the role by immersing himself in Jesuit spirituality. Under the guidance of author Father James Martin, S.J., Garfield practiced the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola for a period of one year.
Other notable performances include Issey Ogata, who plays the relentless, yet incredibly logical Japanese Inquisitor and Yōsuke Kubozuka who plays Kichijiro, a Judas-like character who continually betrays his faith, along with Rodrigues and Garrpe, but somehow keeps coming back to ask for forgiveness.
Beyond the performances, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography brings beautiful visuals to the film. For instance, wide shots of the foggy Japanese landscape allow audience members to feel the mystery and eeriness of being in a strange country, while several overhead shots in the film add drama and give the audience an almost God-like presence, peering down on the humans.
While those shots make for a visually striking film, the long takes and the story’s pacing make for a very lengthy film—“Silence” spans 2 hours and 40 minutes. There really isn’t anything in particular that needs to be cut, but the number of peasants being cruelly tortured does seem to be never-ending.
For those not too keen on the idea of watching a religious film, “Silence” advocates no overbearing message or stance about a particular religion. Like all well-crafted creative pieces, it shows, not tells, and this sets the film apart—and rewards a range of views.
That said, “Silence” will not appeal to everyone—it lacks big explosions and in-your-face special effects, and you won’t find yourself at the edge of your seat. And it will certainly not be misunderstood and glorified by bros like Scorsese’s latest film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which had in its opening scene actor Leonardo DiCaprio using a straw to blow cocaine up a prostitute’s rear-end.
By the film’s close, “Silence” leaves viewers with more questions than answers. You may even depart the theatre not entirely in love with what you saw. But the questions the film poses reflect its strength overall—and they will linger with you, in silence.
Contact Maura Turcotte at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.