For the much revered and venerated Martin Scorcese, Silence represents the director’s magnum opus. The film is a tremendously soul-stirring odyssey of devotion, persecution and theological struggle with Scorcese’s firm directorial hand at its most contemplative and visceral. The picture charts the journey of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find their mentor and ascertain his apparent apostasy in the wake of a systematic torture of devout native Christians.
The first half of the picture shows Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) visiting two downtrodden villages- who must secretly practice their outlawed faith. In these series of scenes, Scorcese presents an excellent portrait of faux ritual. The exacting patience and minimalism of these languid sequences particularly impress.
For example, in the first village, Rodrigues and Garupe perform sermons, baptisms and confessions in a tiny hut. Consequently, Scorcese’s static camera moves imbue the sequences with a compelling intimacy. Moreover, Scorcese’s longstanding editor, Thelma Schoonmaker makes these scenes resonate through her precise cuts in the religious ceremonies. The result is a sense of majesty and heartening comfort as the awe-struck facial expressions of the villagers are regularly shown in the centre of the frame.
Another small moment that encapsulates Scorcese’s considered approach is when Rodrigues is performing Communion with a small cracker. From the object, the camera pans 180 degrees clockwise. The audience is shown the majority of the villagers and ends with Rodrigues’s earnest face. The scene emboldens Scorcese’s exploration of man’s pride overtaking his conviction and purpose.
In the third act, Rodrigues is confronted by his mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (played with subdued enmity by Liam Neeson) who contends that Christianity is a lost cause in Japan. Crucially, he thinks the people who espoused belief in Christianity and died for their faith, in fact, died for Rodrigues. The subtle dramatic revelation casts the first half of the film in a fascinating light. It suggests the folly of Rodrigues’ belief in the face of the heart-wrenching cruelty he has witnessed and proposes that the revelation aspect of Christianity is fundamentally undermining its benevolent intentions.
The interplay between man’s violent nature and his unwavering faith is a theme that has pervaded Scorcese’s oeuvre. In Silence, it takes on a powerful new life because faith and violence are inseparable. Unbeknownst to Rodrigues, his steadfast commitment entails cruelty towards his fellow man despite never physically harming them himself.
During the same conversation, Ferreira makes a compelling case for why Christianity will die out in the country. The most convincing point comes from Japan being an enormous swamp where people worship nature. People inherently espouse the sun rising every day as opposed to the son of God rising after the second day. Rodrigo Prieto’s Cinematography accentuates this idea with these remarkable shots of the sun bathed in twilight. In other regards, Prieto makes Japan feel like an elusive spectre with these foggy, grey shots that engulf the land.
However, it is the last shot of the film in which a black rosary is revealed to be in the midst of Prieto’s burning body that stirs the imagination. It suggests the titular Silence does not necessarily exist between God and his loyal disciple but between the faithful and his devout belief- evoking a fierce internal loyalty that never truly died.