Many are considering Silence to be an Oscar snub after nominations were announced. It took Martin Scorsese nearly thirty years to bring his adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel to the big screen. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Silence is a magnum opus of faith and doubt and a reflection Scorsese’s own fascination with Catholicism and its imagery. It’s a companion piece to The Last Temptation of Christ, though it lacks that film’s frenzy and ecstasy, though it does offer a more nuanced approach to matters of religion and faith. Still, for all the intriguing self-examination Silence offers, it’s hard to get away from the self-important tone of the narration and the belabored storytelling. In a lot of ways, Silence feels like a movie Scorsese thought a little too long about.
Andrew Garfield stars as Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who sails to Japan to find his missing mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira is believed to be an apostate, assumed to have denied his faith in the face of tortures he attempts to describe to the Jesuit leaders back in Lisbon. His young proteges—Rodrigues is joined by another padre, Garupe (Adam Driver)—however think there is more to the story and attempt to find and maybe even rescue Ferreira. There is a sheltered, youthful naiveté to this that is quickly shattered by the brutal conditions of seventeenth-century Japan, when the shogun attempted to eradicate Christianity from Japan’s shores.
There’s no getting around the miscasting of Garfield, who is too wispy a presence as Rodrigues. Garfield manages a convincing portrait of religious conviction in Hacksaw Ridge, but here he struggles to portray Rodrigues’ doubt. It’s not a bad performance, necessarily, but it is a soft one, its weakness thrown into sharp relief by Adam Driver towering next to him. Driver, tremendous in his silences, seems a much better fit for the character besieged by doubt and driven by perhaps misguided fidelity.
All of this makes Issei Ogata indispensable as the Inquisitor sent to test Rodrigues, Inoue. Ogata, a comedian as well as actor, provides some much needed levity that saves Silence from itself. He’s not exactly comic relief—he is playing the torturing devil pursuing our heroes, after all—but he makes enough quirky choices that Inoue is entertaining in his evil. There’s something of bureaucratic drudgery in him, paired with unabashed cruelty and an oddly whimsical worldview, that makes Inoue the most engaging and watchable presence on screen.
The film needs that levity because Silence is slow and ponderous, piling on questions about the nature of faith in the face of a silent deity and enormous earthly cruelty. Like Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t seem to want to take sides, and just as Wall Street skidded sideways into glorifying wealth porn, Silence gets a little masturbatory in its philosophizing.
It’s not so much about answering questions as having a perspective on them. Silence resists answers, fine, but it also resists offering a perspective—perhaps for fear of anything that presents itself as judgment—and that leaves the viewer adrift in the story with nothing to cling to except an ever-increasing and frustrating pile of questions. Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of colonialism, or a warning against the arrogance of imperialism? Neither? Both? At times, watching Silence feels like being cornered by a smug philosophy major who thinks it’s like, so deep, to question the nature of faith without evidence.
There are concepts to chew on in Silence, particularly the clash of cultures between the shogun and Catholic leadership in Japan, and the plight of the Japanese peasants who cling to Christianity in the face of horrific torture. The shogun treat Rodrigues like a child, wearied by his narrow worldview and blind assumption that his way is best. And the peasantry, represented by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a sad, pathetically amusing figure, an apostate tormented by his own self-betrayal, cling to his rites for reasons that go unexplored. (Kichijiro is ten times more interesting than Rodrigues, yet he isn’t the protagonist.)
Responses to Silence will be deeply personal, and will depend largely on your own relationship to religion and faith. Undoubtedly part of my disengagement with the film is due to my own disinterest in religion. And given that, it’s hard not to see the seriousness and portentous weight of the film as a kind of self-interest on the part of Scorsese—the assumption that everyone is going to find this struggle as fascinating and challenging as he does. If you do, then Silence will likely be a worthy rumination on faith and doubt, but if you don’t, then it is a challenge to sit through. What you see in this film and what you take away from it are entirely up to you.