Silence is Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name, itself based on actual events. It is about two Portuguese Jesuits who go to Japan to find their missing mentor and minister to those Catholics forced to practise their faith in secret, due to extensive and brutal persecution by the state.
The Jesuits are Fr Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, pictured) and Fr Garupe (Adam Driver). They know of the persecution and know that their mentor, Fr Ferreira (Liam Neeson), is said to have apostatised. Their superior, Fr Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), reluctantly gives them permission, but warns them of the danger they face if they go to Japan.
They are smuggled into Japan by sea, with the help of a drunken Japanese fisherman, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who we learn apostatised only to see his entire family burned alive.
The two priests minister to the small communities of hidden Christians, afraid both for them and for themselves. The authorities have devised a test for suspected Christians – the fumi-e, an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, that is to be trampled. Those who do not step on it are to be tortured until they do so.
But the real targets for the authorities are the priests. They’ve realised that martyrdoms only increase the faith, but if they can get a priest to apostatise publicly, then they can crush the spirit of entire communities.
The priests watch as their flocks are persecuted. They split up, only to be captured separately. Rodrigues is taken to the feared inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) who applies psychological pressure, waiting for him to crack. Rodrigues watches as Garupe is killed, trying to save the faithful. He watches as Christians are beaten and beheaded in front of him, and finally he is brought face to face with Ferreira, who has renounced the faith and taken a Japanese name and identity.
Rodrigues rejects Ferreira, only to be faced with an even more terrible dilemma – a group of Christians will be tortured in the pit until he apostatises. With Ferreira encouraging him, Rodrigues tramples the fumi-e and saves the Christians. He and Ferreira then live out their days as creatures of the state, their identities replaced by those of dead men, assisting in the detection of other Christians. The final shot is of Rodrigues’ body being burnt, a crucifix given him by the villagers in his hand.
The movie is long and meditatively paced, and is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel, apart from that very last detail. Its cinematography alternates between claustrophobic close-ups emphasising the internal drama, and long shots that show the smallness of humanity. The Japan it depicts is sticky and wet, a wretched place echoing not only Inoue’s repeated refrain that Japan is a swamp, but also the tortured and cruel Vietnam of Apocalypse Now, itself a movie about finding a man who has gone native and betrayed his own.
The score is subtle and reliant on the natural sounds, with voiceover narration – taken from letters – describing key characters’ thoughts and attitudes, at times confirming what is seen, at others challenging it. Critics and audiences are divided over the film, with some appreciating its artistic mastery, and others finding it an interminable slog.
The most controversial aspect of the film, for religious audiences, is Rodrigues’ apostasy. Throughout the story he is troubled by the silence of God, and then God seems to speak to him from the fumi-e, encouraging him to trample.
Some religious commentators, who also acted as advisers for the film, have argued that the voice is Christ’s and that Rodrigues’ “martyrdom” is martyrdom to his own sense of self; that this is how he is called to be Christ-like. It is their view that the priests are still faithful, but that their faith is hidden. Other commentators agree, and denounce the film accordingly.
But this is not the only interpretation. In fact, the Jesuits themselves would traditionally argue to look for natural causes before supernatural ones. As such, it is just as likely that the voice is in Rodrigues’ imagination.
Endo’s book is deliberately ambiguous on this point, but what it is not ambiguous about is the impact of the apostasy. In the novel, and Endo’s prequel play, The Golden Country, about Ferreira’s apostasy, it is clear that the priests are broken men, “living corpses”, full of hatred for each other and themselves. They have more in common with Winston Smith and Julia at the end of 1984 than any saint.
It is understandable that audiences want the priests to be faithful – and the historical Ferreira may have recanted. But this is a story about failure, and that is why it is so disturbing, and also why it is so powerful.