I have been anticipating “Silence” for months. Having had my own experiences with faith at Severna Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SPEP) for many years and majored in Japanese in college, the spiritually themed film, set in Japan, seemed promising on multiple fronts. I was not disappointed; Martin Scorcese’s new film lived up to the hype.
Unlike so many other films of its kind, “Silence” does not attempt to advance one spiritual or cultural message over another. “Silence” could have been a film about the persistence of faith in the face of religious persecution, or of bringing a civilized religion to a savage people. It could have been a counter narrative in the vein of “Avatar,” the story of the arrogant white savior who came to a land he did not understand, and either left in his ignorance or learned to appreciate a culture other than his own. Instead, “Silence” is a long, grueling “Revenant”-esque epic that invites us to ponder questions we had already asked ourselves but perhaps were too afraid to contemplate further; there are no answers given, and the viewer is left to reflect alone.
Set in the 17th century, “Silence” centers on Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Portuguese missionary who sets sail for Japan with a fellow Jesuit, in search of his lost master, Father Ferreira, who disappeared there years ago. The two arrive in the midst of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Japanese Inquisition, a time where the penalty for practicing Christianity was death, often after extended periods of torture. Upon arrival, Father Ferreira feels invigorated and seems to have found purpose, ministering to his flock in secret, as the Christians once did in the catacombs; but soon, the Japanese Inquisitor shows the two missionaries, and all of the secret Christians, the full and true meaning of persecution.
It is clear that this story was never meant to show one side as superior to another, because it does not caricature or stereotype either; it looks deeply into the respective souls of each. The Japanese are not played by white actors, or even by Japanese actors western audiences are familiar and comfortable with (perhaps it was a good thing, in the end, that Ken Watanabe left the project), but the film’s understanding of the Japanese goes far beyond casting and costume. The Inquisitor’s fable of a daimyo with four wives might have been one of the most authentic Japanese moments in western film. But the foreigners, the Jesuits, are not portrayed as evil, ignorant or buffoonish either. Father Rodrigues is clearly deeply committed to faith and initially convinced that he is acting as God’s servant, but as time goes on, he begins to ask the hard questions that no one wants to answer. Is missionary work truly a blessing, or does it only bring suffering and persecution on those one wishes to help? Does one undertake missionary work to help others or to glorify themselves? And ultimately, in the face of so much worldly misery and grief, are we praying to God, or are we praying to nothing but silence?
As the film crawls forward, painfully at times, seemingly on its knees like the titular character, we realize that there is no glory in martyrdom, and Father Rodrigues, as well as the viewer, is at a crossroads. Liam Neeson’s character (this is perhaps the only gripe with the film — Neeson was heavily advertised but had perhaps 15 minutes of screen time) tries to explain to a battered Rodrigues that Christianity just doesn’t work in Japan, or at least not Christianity as Rodrigues knows it; the highly animistic and respect-oriented Japanese just do not think, feel or act in the same way that the Portuguese do, do not place themselves in the footsteps of Jesus. Rodrigues is forced to make a choice, religiously, culturally and spiritually. The film ends in an ambiguous way, leaving the viewer not to decide, but to ponder, to reflect and to be reverent, either to God, to nature or to nothingness.
This is not a film for the light of heart or weak of stomach, but if you can make it through, go see it. It’s not a story; it’s a spiritual experience.