See Silence, Please: On Scorsese’s New Masterwork

silence

Silence
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Opens December 23

A masterwork set during the confrontational age of discovery, Martin Scorsese’s searching Silence—the 24th narrative feature by that high priest of American cinema—speaks volumes about the twin gauntlets of cultural and spiritual discord. The film, a passion-project adaptation of a 1966 historical novel by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō, begins as a mystery, before pushing into more interior terrain altogether. Two Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, ably embodying a gentle but insistent certitude) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver, looking like he stepped right out of a medieval painting), undertake to smuggle themselves into 17th-century Japan, a place where Christianity has been outlawed, its adherents routinely tortured into renouncing their faith. The priests intend to investigate what’s become of Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), an admired superior who may have apostatized himself, a report they can scarcely imagine to be true.

Scorsese has lately reveled in excess, eager to play fabulist (Hugo) or satirist (The Wolf of Wall Street) as the occasion demands, but the more than two-and-a-half-hour-long Silence is rather unshowy even compared to his other monumental religious works, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). Under the guidance of the shifty Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), Rodrigues and Garrpe touch down in a foggy mountain hamlet outside of Nagasaki, where they set about secretly ministering to the local faithful. It’s not long before the authorities sweep through, forcing suspected Catholics to defile iconography or else face boiling-water showers and high-tide crucifixions—none of which agonies are spared the viewer. The trials of one individual come to eclipse the search for Ferreira: The movie achieves an almost theatrical intensity as Rodrigues gets separated from Garrpe and thrown into a prison cell, dragged out only to go toe to toe with the grand inquisitor Inoue (the comedian Issei Ogata, blithely cruel in the film’s most mannered and mesmerizing performance). Rodrigues learns, during the course of this confinement, that he’s not immune from a crisis of faith himself, as he earlier might’ve been so arrogant as to assume.

Was it, in fact, mere folly to import Christanity to Japan in the first place, and can it be that the land, as Inoue claims, is fundamentally inhospitable to the doctrine? Is God’s refusal to reply, when He’s called upon, meaningful or meaningless or both? What private integrity, if any, can a faith retain once it’s been renounced publicly? Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks ask countless questions that elude answers, let alone easy ones, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, largely forgoing the snappy whips and tracking shots one associates with Scorsese, teases a terse sense of desperation from landscapes shrouded by fog and faces wracked by guilt. Should anyone have lost faith in the great director as he’s wandered, late in his career, deep into the weeds of maximalism, certainly this anguished, intimate epic is enough to restore it.