Christianity and cinema have not always meshed well. Filmmakers seeking to intertwine the two face a delicate balance: to embrace the ideals of faith while still providing a tangible story to which moviegoers can relate. Whether it’s a drama about a near-death experience or the next Kirk Cameron movie, many directors lean heavily on Christian forgiveness to paper over fundamentally flawed filmmaking.
Enter Martin Scorsese.
For the former altar boy who contemplated a career in the Catholic clergy, religion remains a prominent theme. Examine how the director evokes the intimacy of confession in 1976’s Taxi Driver, or uses passages from the Holy Bible in 1973’s Mean Streets and, more recently, 2006’s The Departed, and you’ll see how Scorsese uses the theatricality of rituals to great effect. Not to mention his exploration of the Son of God’s journey in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
Scorsese’s admiration and appreciation of faith continues with his quiet but stunning entry Silence, a film that he’s been cooking for nearly 30 years and couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Based on the 1966 historical fiction novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, Silence begins in 1640. It tells of two young Portuguese Jesuits — Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) — who receive the demoralizing word that their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has finally relented after years of violent persecution in Japan and publicly renounced his faith.
This news sets the missionaries on their dangerous quest to retrieve Father Ferreira and keep the torch of Christianity burning in a country where the religion has been outlawed.
The film is just over two-and-a-half hours long, and much of that time is concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture of those who practice Christianity. It’s a difficult film for audiences to watch, especially at the hands of a grueling Japanese inquisitor named Inoue (an award-worthy Issey Ogata). As a dominant leader willing to commit unimaginable horrors to retain his power, he’s easily one of the most frightening antagonists put on screen in some time.
A powerful aspect explored in Silence is the idea of fumi-e, a ritual of persecution the feudal Japanese military utilized. It forced suspected Christians to step on flat tablets with visages of Jesus or Mary on them, as a way of renouncing their faith to the public. If they didn’t step on the tablet or spit on a crucifix, they were jailed, tortured or even executed.
As with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), not much joy can be found in Scorsese’s latest. It’s about the depths people go to in order to defend what they believe. Whether that’s the practice of Christianity or the sheer hatred the Japanese community who believe otherwise display, the battle gets downright brutal.
However, through all the pain and suffering the characters brave through the course of the narrative, it has purpose and a meaning that burns into your consciousness long after exiting the theater. Christian or not, anyone can relate to the notion of fighting for one’s beliefs. Scorsese doesn’t concern himself with trying to shove any sort of Gospel down your throat. He just wants to give insight into the hardships of the time and bring it into the now for discussion.
Beyond its themes, Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) gives the performance of his career as the determined Rodrigues. Some of the film’s most resonating moments come as his character wrestles to maintain a calm state of mind during the degrading of his religion. And while Garfield, Driver (of the upcoming Paterson) and Neeson don’t exactly sell Portuguese well with their fumbling accents and disingenuous appearances, their emotional core rings true and remains consistent enough that faults will be quickly forgiven
Silence provides an enlightening spiritual experience without ever overstepping its bounds or becoming preachy. Scorsese’s film is more than a simple tale of a divided land, for he gives us a harrowing glimpse into a fractured world. Much can be learned through its anguish and silence.
PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.
Rated R, 161 minutes.
Opens Friday at Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.