(Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 2016)

A Still Small Voice

“Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.
And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire a still small voice.” – 1 Kings 19:11-12

As the swelling chatter of insects and hum of nature’s white noise abruptly give way to the total absence of sound before an image even appears on the black screen, the central theme of Martin Scorsese’s latest film is made strikingly clear. Silence can be terrifying. And, when silence is the divine response to human faith, it has the potential to shake the devout to the core and test the very limits of that belief. Scorsese understands this tension well. He remains one of the few living filmmakers apparently brave enough to intelligently engage religion in his art. And, though the director’s Roman Catholicism has been a fixture of many of his films, it hasn’t featured this prominently since The Last Temptation of Christ. Like that film, the story of Silence – based on the novel by Shusaku Endo – gives Scorsese more than enough room to challenge the faith of his flawed characters.

In seventeenth century Japan, a Jesuit priest from Portugal has gone missing and is rumored to have apostatized during a time of extreme persecution of European missionaries and their Japanese converts. The film begins with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnessing the torture of his fellow padres at the hands of a merciless “Inquisitor” determined to snuff out Christianity in a scene that sets the tone for this bleak epic. Scorsese then cuts to Ferreira’s two former pupils Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) who, in disbelief, resolve to travel to Japan to discover the truth about their missing mentor. Both of them believe it to be impossible that Ferreira could have denounced the faith.

With a setup that seems to the promise the suspense and intrigue of the manhunt for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Scorsese quickly subverts expectations when the pair arrives in Japan, and the film becomes less about the quest for Ferreira and more about the inner struggles of Rodrigues. Led by their presumably unreliable guide, the drunkard Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the two padres stumble upon a village of secret Christians in desperate need of a priest. Though they begin to administer sacraments and offer confession, they are soon faced with the dangerous reality of living as a Christian in Japan. After the village is exposed, a few of their most devoted followers are brutally executed, sparking the two padres to split up to protect the village from further trouble. Scorsese chooses to follow Rodrigues who is betrayed by Kichijiro and delivered into the hands of the one known as the Inquisitor, the local governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). The majority of the film, then, details Rodrigues’ time in captivity as this unwavering ruler seeks to break the young priest until he too gives up the faith.

Scorsese’s graciously paced film is both beautiful and brutal in its refreshingly nuanced portrayal of the Christian faith. Silence is a film of great richness – one that raises daring and complicated questions and then refuses to answer any of them. Is the Christian gospel universal? If so, are the foreign missionaries then justified in their insistence on spreading their message throughout Japan, against the wishes of the ruling authorities? Or is Japan, as one character states, a swamp where Christianity can never take root? Are the Japanese Christians true converts, followers of Jesus Christ, or mere followers of the priests they admire? Is Rodrigues arrogant in his refusal to apostatize though he frequently suggests that his followers do so that they may escape persecution? Is the Judas Iscariot-like Kichijiro past the point of redemption after his umpteenth instance of denouncing the faith? And, perhaps most crucial to Rodrigues’ progression as a character, is divine silence the same as divine indifference? Or was the naïve and haughty young priest finally able to hear the voice of God only when he went silent so as to catch that still small voice?

That Scorsese manages to wrestle with each of these questions in turn – not to mention touching the blurry line between religion and empire, the historic failure of Western missionaries to understand or learn the cultures where they preached, or confusion surrounding fundamental doctrines of Christianity that has produced divisions in the Church to this day – within the believable confines of one story is truly remarkable. The characters in Silence are equally as layered. Who are the villains here? The film’s promotional cycle would have you believe there’s no question that Scorsese’s in the corner of the missionaries, but the film is far too generous for that. The priests are beholden to the truth and care for their flock, but they are also arrogant. The governor and his men are often sadistic in their seeming disregard for human life, but then at times also appear reasonable and far more concerned with the future prosperity of Japan as a nation than the foreigners. And, to complicate matters further, the governor (and by proxy the apostate Ferreira) seems to understand the core tenants of Christianity better than the stubborn padres he opposes.

Given the depth achieved in this surprisingly balanced cinematic exploration of morality and faith, it’s a wonder Silence was not better received. A box office dud and inexplicably ignored during awards season, Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project was apparently too ambiguous for the American Christian market and too unapologetically religious for the liberal critic circles. I suspect that the film was either too quickly derided or dismissed altogether because it’s been sadly misunderstood. Of course, this is not to say I somehow “get” something that others much smarter than me don’t. But, I believe it to be a work deserving of much richer discourse and contemplation given the sheer number of significant questions raised that Scorsese brilliantly refrains from trying to answer. And, to those uncomfortable with a mainstream Hollywood production chronicling the historical spread of Christianity I say this: Scorsese’s decision to depict Christians as the victims here does not somehow implicitly absolve the entire religion of its own spotty history of violence and forced conversions. Instead, he sees what many in today’s mass pop culture are either unable or unwilling to admit: Christians are people too – with fears, flaws, and great stories to tell.

It would be a mistake to acknowledge the thematic achievements of the filmmaker’s greatest film in years without pointing to his superior skills at the craft, which he’s mastered over the past few decades. Though Silence is a far cry from Hugo or The Wolf of Wall Street, to name his two most recent acclaimed features, there are still enough Scorsese tics to separate this historical epic from the more traditional offerings in that genre. There are his unexpected camera movements and angles, a borderline cartoonish caricature to counter the story’s grim content, and more than a few visual pleasures courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto’s breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography. Too, the big name Western actors likely meant to draw apathetic American viewers to the theater were fine, as expected, but it’s the Japanese cast that truly shines. Scorsese has a knack for unearthing scene-stealing performances from his supporting actors (especially in the post-De Niro-as-leading-man era), and Silence is no exception. Asano Tadanobu as the governor’s eerily calm and collected interpreter and Kubozuka Yosuke as the padre’s untrustworthy and religiously confused guide Kichijiro are both fantastic, but the film ultimately belongs to Issey Ogata. As the Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, Ogata compellingly oscillates between extremes during the course of a single scene giving his hot-tempered philosopher with an undeniable sadistic streak remarkable breadth as a villain.

It’s particularly fascinating to watch when Scorsese’s visual artistry meets the film’s weighty themes. This is no more evident than the recurring image of El Greco’s portrait of Christ that Garfield’s Rodrigues repeatedly sees in his daydreams and even at one point in his reflection in a bubbling stream. The portrait’s final appearance occurs during a pivotal sequence near film’s end when a cruder image of the Christ begins audibly engaging the conflicted priest as he’s faced with denouncing his faith to save the faithful. This conversation with the savior of the world represents a hauntingly bold moment in modern cinema. Scorsese seems to assert that it’s only when the proud Rodrigues, consumed with his own piety, silences himself is he able to hear the voice of his God. So, is the film’s title a reference to an almighty God’s absence or, worse, indifference to his creation’s suffering? Or does it speak to the posture or place where humankind can finally hear the divine, who has been suffering alongside his creation the whole time? Scorsese’s Silence fittingly does not answer. But, I suspect as this great work’s impact deepens with time, we may still be asking these questions for years to come.