Film Review: Silence.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s film buff, Lance Sinclair, reviews Scorsese’s Silence.

Scorsese’s Silence, an adaption of Shûsaku Endô’s novel, is a critically acclaimed historical drama set in seventeenth century Japan. Scorsese and script writer Jay Cocks worked on the film for over two decades.

By 1638, the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638) had been crushed. The shogunate, deeply suspicious of western Catholics’ involvement in initiating and spreading unrest, banned Christianity. By 1639, Portuguese traders had been driven out of Japan, and their ships forbidden. The practice of fumi-e was introduced to reveal practising Catholics, forcing them to renounce their faith. The alternative was torture, execution, lost families, homes burnt to the ground and lands taken. Thus followed 200 years of sakoku (isolation from foreign influences).

This is the landscape into which Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), step. They find themselves in the aftermath of 20 years of Jesuit persecution in Japan, a place where Christian populations are driven underground and "hidden Christians" live in fear. Rodrigues and Garupe's story begins in Lisbon, when they receive information from Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) that their mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), “is lost to them”. He has publicly denounced his faith, become a Buddhist and is living with his Japanese wife and children.

The passionate priests refuse to accept this, demanding to travel to Japan on a mission to spread Catholicism and track down Father Ferreira to discover the truth.

Their faith is challenged, martyrdom questioned, and the truth is ambiguous.

As Father Rodrigues in his desperate prayer asks, “Am I just praying to silence?”

The film, just shy of three hours long, was released in 2016 and received an R rating for violent scenes.

Image from film Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, produced by Barbara De Fina et al, streamed on Kanopy database.


It’s testament to the power that director Martin Scorsese wields that he’s able to draw us deeply into worlds that might be alien to us – an orphan boy who lives within the walls of a train station, a homicidal cab driver with a shattered moral compass, Jesus Christ facing his final hours – and find the shared humanity at the core of all of these scenarios.  Wherever he takes us, there is always a profound empathy to his stories, the sense that we’re with these characters, hovering over their shoulder and contemplating their moral choices. Good or bad, we’ve seen how these people arrived at their place in life and gone through the wringer with them.

Silence stands as one of his greatest achievements, a story that is both narratively and emotionally grand and frustrating – that asks whether our loftiest notions of wrong and right can ever be reconciled with the reality of living in a world that may be hostile or indifferent to the things we hold closest. The foundations of our very souls, to get lofty about it.

And the grand, tragic adventure of Silence is the place to get lofty if we’re going to. We’re in Macau, in the early 17th century, two young Jesuit priests, Francisco Garupe and Sebastio Rodrigues (Adam Driver and the greatly underrated Andrew Garfield respectively) receive word that their mentor Christovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apostatized and renounced his faith.  Missing for years following his trip to Japan as a missionary, the young priests refuse to believe that the man who imbued them with their own devotion could have turned from the light and vanished into this other, unknown world. And so, their long grueling reckoning with destiny begins.

Guided by the maniacally alcoholic Kichijiro – an outcast and pariah who will haunt them through their complex journey, Sebastio and Francisco arrive on the shores of a Japan far more extreme than they had expected. Christianity has been violently purged from these shores, and those who would dare to follow or preach it live in animalistic conditions with that cruel hand of the Grand Inquisitor always hovering above them. Torture and death are the alternative to rejecting their faith. Looking for some kind of sense in this horror, the acolytes continue the desperate search for their master. What follows is a test of wills, as the scales of real-time mortal suffering are weighed against something as simple as the letting go of a belief.

It should be mentioned that the story is not Scorsese’s. As with the great majority of his works, he is the teller of another person’s tale. Silence was a novel published in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, and this film retains all of the primary ideas and questions raised by that phenomenal work. What makes this a piece that can resonate with those who have no stakes in the question of Christian missionary work is how it asks us to apply its themes to ourselves. Over and over again our protagonists are told “Give up your values. Renounce the very core of yourself”. The equation is suffering vs faith. The vengeance of the Japanese authorities, which includes the fiendishly beautiful spectacle of immersed oceanic crucifixion amongst other terrors, can be alleviated by something as simple as laying down in the face of an insurmountable physical force.

Has their master turned? Is this martyrdom or needless human waste? These questions, and above all else – the question of whether causing harm not only to themselves but to the others who are punished until they quit their mission, is the weight that begins to crush our young priests. And beyond that, the question of whether bringing a belief system to a people who adamantly do not want it or welcome it is just ego and hubris masquerading as compassion.

Since being introduced to Harvey Keitel's Charlie in the 1973 film Mean Streets, Scorsese has given us characters who have to reckon with their core beliefs, and whether their vision of themselves is as noble as they’d like to think it is. On what kept him coming back to this project over a 25 year gestation period, Scorsese remarked “Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions – this is what really interests me”.  With Silence he may have chosen the perfect vessel for him and us to ruminate on these ideas. Beyond the surface text of religion, this is a story about how we reconcile our place in the world, and what we are willing to compromise to live in it.

Further reading

  • "Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy" / DeWeese-Boyd, Ian. Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 21, No. 2,  2017, pp. 0_1,1–34. (article
  • "Redeemed in blood: The sacramental universe of Martin Scorsese" / Blake, Richard A. Journal of Popular Film & Television, Vol. 24, No. 1,  1996, pp. 2-9. (article
  • The philosophy of Martin Scorsese / Conard, M T. (ed) ; Lexington : University Press of Kentucky ; 2007 (ebook)
  • The films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro / Rausch, A J.; Lanham, Md. : Scarecrow Press ; 2010 (ebook)
  • A Christian Samurai / Farge, W J.& Doak, K ; Washington : Catholic University of America Press ; 2016 (ebook)
  • A Christian in the Land of the Gods Journey of Faith in Japan / Shelton, J R; Eugene : Wipf and Stock Publishers ; 2016 (ebook)

Join Lance on Tuesday 12 May at 4pm for a Q&A session on State Library of Queensland’s Facebook page.


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