I would not normally rush to see a film about Portuguese priests on a mission to 16th century Japan. But Silence is the work of a master, Martin Scorsese, who has labored to bring Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel to life for more than twenty years, having written a screenplay with Jay Cocks long ago. He has pondered the novel all along while dealing with religion both directly and indirectly in his other works. The result is a film that casts a kind of spell. I fell under that spell in the opening scene and it held me in its thrall to the very end.
Scorsese is willing to take his time with this story but it never feels slow or labored. On one level there is always an element of suspense and surprise. Two young priests (perfectly and credibly played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are sent to Japan to find their respected colleague (Liam Neeson) who went there on a groundbreaking mission and has lately gone silent. When they arrive they are greeted with great enthusiasm by simple villagers who have been converted to Christianity. They desperately want comfort, solace, and the sacraments they have been denied during the older priest’s absence—especially baptism and confession.
They have also been punished terribly for clinging to their beliefs. They struggle to maintain a blanket of secrecy from the Japanese leaders who revile Christianity and everything it stands for. They demand that these believers apostatize, publicly renouncing Christ. This harsh treatment is brought down on the new arrivals, as well, causing spiritual crises for Garfield and Driver. Where is God when they need him most? Garfield, in particular, is tortured and taunted by a wily inquisitor (Issey Ogata) who tells him that Christianity has no place in Japan. How will the young priest respond…and how can he survive?
All of this plays out against a mesmerizing backdrop: the crashing surf of ocean against the shore, a nearby cave, a primitive village. Scorsese’s A-team of production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Thelma Schoonmaker help him realize his vision in a series of striking tableaux. There is no music in the conventional sense but the organic score of natural sounds (credited to Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge) supports the drama exquisitely well.
Silence transported me to another time and place and gave me great empathy for its leading characters. I can ask no more of a film…but the harshly beautiful environment, and deeply-felt performances, lift Silence to the pinnacle of personal filmmaking. Scorsese has given us a rare and extraordinary gift.