In the 1600’s, any practicing Christian in Japan is subjected to torture and potential death. When the rumors of a Portuguese priest (Liam Neeson) practicing in Nagasaki is said to have given up his faith, two former students (now priests) attempt to find him while providing guidance to other Japanese Christians in hiding. One of the priests (Andrew Garfield) has his faith greatly tested when villagers are punished for his beliefs.
Only Martin Scorsese could have made this movie. That’s not to say another director couldn’t have made a quality film with the same script, but he’s the only director who has the green light to make such a ponderous, slow playing epic that is religion over load. It’s ironic that in a time where people are singing Christmas carols and wishing each other holiday cheer, Scorsese takes Christianity to its bare essentials and focuses on the men and women who were persecuted for it. Merry Christmas, everyone! In all seriousness though, while Christianity is an important piece to Silence, you could have replaced it with any number of beliefs or religions and gotten the same thematic elements. This movie isn’t so much about the ways of Christianity as it is about watching a character be put through a gauntlet of suffering. It asks the question of just how important are your beliefs, and at what cost?
Silence takes a little while to get going. When you make a film about religion in the seventeenth century, there’s going to be some lulls. It’s not as if you can write snappy dialogue and one-liners to lighten the mood. It’s not until a specific scene where we finally get into the meat of this story. There are several villagers who get captured by Japanese men who serve an Inquisitor that hunts down suspected Christians in Japan. Their faith is put through the ultimate test. They literally just have to touch an inanimate object a certain way, and they will avoid the most tortuous punishment. Even if you aren’t a religious person, to watch a scene like this is incredible. They are so steadfast in their beliefs that they can’t do it. And that’s ultimately what this movie is. Will they give in, or not? While this is interesting to watch play out amongst the ancillary characters, it doesn’t compare to what our protagonist goes through.
What a year for Andrew Garfield. A case can be made for nominations in this and Hacksaw Ridge. Garfield plays Rodrigues, one of the Portuguese missionaries who travels to Japan. This man goes through hell for two hours, but it’s not his own suffering he endures. Rodrigues is constantly barraged with this question: Do I give up everything I believe in to end the suffering of many? The performance is crucial, and Garfield plays it beautifully. There are particular moments of agony, and he really draws you into his world. It’s also the voice overs that crush you. Not only are they well written, but you really get into this guy’s mindset as he struggles with just about everything. There are times of great desperation when he even calls out to Jesus himself, and Scorsese delivers those powerful images as only he can, just as he’s done the last 40+ years. Garfield’s character arc is the beating heart of this story.
The film is also populated with solid supporting players. Adam Driver plays the other priest who travels with Rodrigues, Father Garrpe. Driver isn’t in the film as much as you’d think, but he does provide one critical scene. You certainly appreciate the caliber of actor that is Driver for this small, but pivotal role. The main antagonist is also chilling, but not in the way you’d think. Issey Ogata is exceptionally engaging, and should merit Oscar consideration. The other character I enjoyed was Kichijiro, who’s constantly betraying Rodrigues. Yosuke Kubozuka does a great job of making you hate him, but still have an ounce of sorrow for him. He’s also a great foil for Rodrigues, as the wretchedness of this man is one of the elements that makes Rodrigues question his space for forgiveness.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Liam Neeson. It was great to see Liam Neeson in a real movie again. It’s been a while. This reminds you that the guy is actually an extraordinary talent. He’s not in the film a ton, but his first scene with Garfield is riveting. Beautiful dialogue. This is the type of debate and rhetoric you would have with your friend about religion. Where Neeson really shines is the pure sadness in his face. This is a guy who seemingly has found peace, yet the slightest tick of his face tells you otherwise. You never know for sure, and that’s the brilliance of the character.
This movie falls just short of cracking my top five of the year, but it’s still one of the best. I’m not sure about its Oscar chances, but it sure as hell should merit a Best Cinematography nomination. Holy matza balls, this film looks gorgeous. While I greatly enjoyed the themes, they are very repetitive for almost three hours. The climax is extremely powerful though, and it reminds you just how DAMN good a director Martin Scorsese is. The problem is there’s a fifteen-minute epilogue that’s a bit half-assed. While the last image of the film is predictable, it’s still very impactful. While a slog to sit through at times, this movie will stick with you long after the credits. As with all Scorsese epics, you are rewarded for your time.