Silence is a grueling, unrelenting experience. It offers its viewers no quarter, no comfort and no easy answers in its telling of the story of three Jesuit priests trying (and failing) to establish the Catholic church in 17th century Japan.
In retrospect, these storytelling choices seem very intentional and very, very effective - making this another feather in director Martin Scorsese's feather-crowded hat - but as you take in the film they seem excessive after a certain point.
This is a long film, clocking in at 161 minutes. It is without a score. As you're watching it, this feels a bit on the nose given the title of the film, but it's a directorial choice that gains power after the conclusion. Even its plot is deceptively spare. The three priests at the center of the story seem radically altered by their experience in Japan, but are essentially put through their paces by a series of tests that never fundamentally change. Again, it feels repetitive as the story unfolds, but seems to gain power as you look back.
The three priests are played by Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson. Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garube (Driver) smuggle their way in to Japan after receiving word from Ferreira (Neeson) of the horrific torture and killing of missionaries near Nagasaki, an extreme backlash from local authorities after years of tolerating the presence of Jesuits.
Rodrigues and Garube's expressed purpose in Japan is to discover the fate of Ferreira, a mentor of theirs, who is rumored to have apostasized in the wake of the horrors he witnessed. But upon their arrival they are almost immediately waylaid by the "Kakure Kirishitans" - hidden Christians, worshipping in secret - who offer them what little shelter and food they can and are nourished by the presence of two men who can offer them the sacraments.
This is a gratifying experience for Rodrigues and Garube, and a perfect setup from Scorsese. He uses trap doors, sea caves, clandestine conversations in fields and dim firelight to immerse his audience in what, for most, will be a totally foreign place and time. And he also establishes a deep connection between the two men and their new flock, a bond that is repeatedly tested once the pair is known to the local authorities still cracking down on the "Kirishitans."
Once Rodrigues and Garube are out in the open, the test of faith relayed by Neeson's Ferreira in the film's opening sequence is revisited over and over. In that sequence, the authorities in Nagasaki ask the European missionaries to apostasize simply by stepping on a crude piece of Christian art. When they refuse to place their sandal on it, they have scalding hot water dripped on their bodies slowly.
Some years later, the test of faith is the same - place your sandal on the picture of Christ - but the stakes are far more twisted. Rodrigues and Garube remain the focal point of the test, but rather than their own fate being at risk, it is instead their followers.
The sadistic brilliance of the test - personified in a multi-scene-stealing performance by Issey Ogata as the inquisitor of Nagasaki - in its new form is that it turns the nature of the priests in on itself. Sacrifice, only you must sacrifice the one thing you hold most dear, the thing that brought you here in the first place and forms the bond between you and the people you can save. It is administered in parallel drip-drip-drip fashion as the scalding hot water, allowing each of the three priests, including the re-emergent Ferreira, to answer it in their own way and on multiple occasions.
Their answers are different from each other's, and, in the case of Rodrigues especially, different each time he is subject to the test. It never gets easier for Rodrigues, and there is never any indication from Scorsese that he did the right thing in any one instance.
What is the right thing, anyway? Is it to denounce your faith publicly and save lives, carrying on your relationship with God in silence, but perhaps weakening the faith of your followers in the process? Or is it to stand by your faith at all costs, not just to yourself but to others?
Scorsese acknowledges the merits of both stands, and, by not really offering his own opinion, allows us to wrestle with it long beyond the confines of the film. After all, most of us, will need more than a couple of hours to arrive at some sort of answer, and even then, it will probably be a tenuous one at best.
I'll need to see Silence again to more properly assess where it sits in the Scorsese pantheon. More importantly, I'll need to see it again to wrestle with what the great director is putting forth. The right answers on questions as tough as this aren't easy to come by.