Silence: The Weight of Water, by David Bax
In case you’re worried that a long and deliberately paced epic about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan won’t contain enough of the sensational thrills of the standard Martin Scorsese movie, allow me to put your fears to rest: Silence opens with a shot of severed heads, followed by a torture sequence. It won’t be the last time human bodies will be mutilated over the course of the following two and a half hours, either. Yet most of the torment herein is of the spiritual, moral and existential varieties. And in what may be his best film in 25 years, Scorsese makes it all far more compelling than any number of bullets to the head.
At the outset, Silence’s plot concerns two Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to track down their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have publicly renounced Jesus Christ under the pressures of a government that relentlessly and violently persecutes Christians. Before they get very far in their search, though, they find themselves in an island village of practicing Christians in search of guidance and decide to devote their time to those in need while still keeping an ear out for word of Ferreira. From this point on, large portions of the film play out in the form of dialectical two-handers, long scenes in which Rodrigues debates faith and devotion and all other matters of the spirit with a succession of partners. These supporting roles are all perfectly cast and executed, from Driver to a cowardly drunk played by Yôsuke Kubozuka to an aging samurai who becomes Rodrigues’ chief antagonist, played by Issei Ogata as a sort of wise goblin in a chilling and precise wonder of a performance.
Scorsese’s previous visit Christianity as subject matter was The Last Temptation of Christ. There are many similarities to that film to be found here, especially in the juxtaposition of the elation of fervor with crushing self-doubt. But where Last Temptation blended carnality and mysticism, Silence keeps God out of sight. Characters can choose to believe in him but, if he’s there, he’s hidden somewhere behind the shrouds of mist that roll in off the ocean.
Rodrigues and Garrpe haven’t come to simply reveal God to the people of Japan; they’ve come to preach that faith will result in everlasting life. But Scorsese, who adapted Shûsaku Endô’s novel along with Jay Cocks, directs our attention not to the promise of heaven but to the intense, daily suffering visited upon Christians in order to eradicate them. Of course, those carrying out this persecution are the villains but, Silence reminds us, none of it would be taking place had Rodrigues and Garrpe and even Ferreira and all the missionaries never come in the first place. It’s hard to exalt in the glory of a distant finish line when every step of the race is excruciating.
Then again, where would Christianity be without suffering? This is a religion whose universal symbol is a method of torture. As Kubozuka’s character, Kichijiro, a devout Christian who repeatedly backslides into betrayal, asks Rodrigues, “Where is the place for a weak man in a world like this?” Yet Christianity has a system in place to deal with weakness. Forgiveness is offered to all who seek it. So, then, is compromise truly heresy? And, if it is, is one heresy absolute and final when the heretic can yet be redeemed? These questions are further complicated when you remind yourself that these are Catholics, who do not believe that man is saved through faith alone. In this light, Kichijiro’s weakness—and maybe even the weakness of a priest—can perhaps forestall salvation.
And so we turn again to God for help. But neither we nor the characters can know for sure if he’s answering. There is almost no real silence in Silence. Even when no one’s speaking, the empirical world asserts its immediacy through ever present chirping birds and insects or crashing waves. Scorsese waits for the climax to finally remove the sound completely. The rest of the time, it’s always there, just like the heavy fog that weighs us down and binds us to the earth, never letting us know the mysteries that lurk behind it or if they’re even there.