Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ enthrallingly exposes humanity through history

Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures/Courtesy
"Silence" | Paramount Pictures
Grade: A

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In the 1630s, during Japan’s Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate quelled an uprising of Japanese Roman Catholics; in the aftermath, with Christianity prohibited and punishable by death, a faction of Japanese Christians practiced their faith secretly so as to escape persecution. Novelist Shūsaku Endō undertook the story of the Kakure Kirishitans, or hidden Christians, in his well-received 1966 historical fiction novel “Silence.” Half a century later, Martin Scorsese has adapted the story into a haunting, near-three-hour monolith of a film that raises questions of both faith and human nature itself.

“Silence” follows two young Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), who venture to the heart of Japan at the height of its anti-Christian sentiment to find their mentor Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), rumored to have renounced the Church and adopted a Japanese identity. Eventually captured, they face physical and mental torture.

To relate the sweeping epic, Scorsese turns inward with an almost claustrophobic focus on Rodrigues — everything we know and discover is through his eyes. As expected, much of the narrative rests on the bony shoulders of Garfield’s Rodrigues, and Garfield delivers a career-best performance. Garfield’s excruciatingly nuanced facial expressions serve as the main vehicle for broken ace Rodrigues’ journey from naïve arrogance to paranoid mania and beyond.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto tailors his camerawork to the narrative style, alternating between tight angles on every crease of emotion on Garfield’s countenance and point-of-view shots that don’t shy away from the obscurity of one man’s range of vision. Notably, in one scene, the unexpectedness of another Christian prisoner’s gruesome execution is conveyed purely by the camera — until the split second of the fatal blow, all that is visible through the bars of Rodrigues’ prison cell is the disquieting approach of the executioner’s shadow.

While Garrpe is given much less focus, as a foil for Rodrigues, he reveals the de facto narrator in a perspective of contrast that would otherwise go unseen. Where Rodrigues treats the petrified secret Christians they encounter with gentle, if paternalistic, guidance, Garrpe turns impatient and disillusioned from the start. Where Rodrigues crouches with patience in wait for more news of Ferreira, Garrpe paces their ragged hideout with feral frustration. Where Rodrigues grows increasingly paralyzed by the horrific deaths he witnesses, Garrpe’s nervous tension explodes at last into a selfless but ill-thought-out act of desperation, finally begging the question of Rodrigues’ efficacy as a Jesuit. Garrpe’s inverse trajectory to Rodrigues’ is aided by Driver’s distinctive performance style. Behind Garfield’s openly emotive Rodrigues, Driver imbues Garrpe with a feline mask of tense agitation.

Rodrigues’ “Apocalypse Now”-esque trek through Japan brings him to two pivotal Kurtz figures: the grand inquisitor Inoue Masahige (Issey Ogata) and Ferreira himself. Both serve to alternatingly crush and reaffirm Rodrigues’ violently wavering faith in the Church and himself, but now more through philosophical discourse than exposure to grisly torture. Neeson’s arrival brings some closure to the plot; his subtle, ambiguous performance, however, takes a backseat to Ogata’s masterful portrayal of the inquisitor.

Inoue’s introduction begins a captivating new chapter in the film that cements its status as a classic. At this point, the question is hardly one of faith anymore, but rather one of when Rodrigues will break. Ogata’s unnerving grin and lilting sneer throughout the mental trials Inoue puts Rodrigues through make the inquisitor all the more intimidating and powerful. While the frenzied priest questions everything that’s composed his identity, Ogata’s Inoue assumes a congenial facial expression that laconically implies that the stakes are much higher for Rodrigues than they are for him.

The film’s Japan is unlike conventional portrayals of the East through the eyes of colonizers. Rather than a victim struggling against colonial powers, Edo period Japan is, as articulated by Inoue in a riveting debate scene, a daimyo expelling quarrelsome concubines, in this case Western colonizers. The unforgiving Japan evoked by Scorsese is just as important as his idyllic Tibet of “Kundun” in revealing the multiple points of influence and power present in every conflict, religious and otherwise. In telling the story of this historical period, Japan is as much a character as the priests and statesmen.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].