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'Silence' Is an Emotional Journey From Unyielding Devotion to Despairing Doubts

TV/Film ReviewPatricia TancrediComment

Martin Scorsese's latest film, “Silence,” a long, torturous, and melodramatic portrayal of a man’s spiritual journey, is finally getting an expanded release tomorrow after nearly 25 years in the making. The long-awaited passion project follows two Jesuit priests on their journey to locate their missing teacher, Padre Ferreira, who is rumored to have denounced his Christian faith for the “savage” Japanese Buddhism. Based on the 1966 historical novel “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō, Scorsese and past collaborator Jay Cocks adapt this renowned work for the screen starring Andrew Garfield as Padre Rodrigues, Adam Driver as Padre Garupe, and Liam Neeson as Padre Ferreira.

“Silence” opens with serene, misty visuals of Japanese nature followed by striking shots of dozens of Jesuit priests having boiling water slowly drizzled torturously over their naked bodies in an effort to have them apostatize. During this the last letter Ferreira sent to Portugal is read aloud to his former students Rodrigues and Garupe who commit to searching for their beloved mentor to prove that he has not betrayed their God. As the pair set through Japan, hidden and protected by Japanese villagers who are terrorized by the Japanese inquisitor for their Christian practices, their devotion is tested and they are pushed to extremes, tortured emotionally, physically, mentally, and most of all, spiritually.

As you listen to Rodrigues’s inner monologue, the audience is put in the unique position of feeling and experiencing his pain while simultaneously being limited to observing the action. Just as he cannot help the Japanese villagers without denouncing his God, the viewers also cannot do anything but watch in torment. Rodrigues’ journey from unconditional love for his God to the agonizing loneliness and betrayal he feels from both God and his own Judas, Kichijiro. Rodrigues’s torture becomes the viewer’s torture, and as he is asked what Jesus would do and if God would forgive him for denouncing him, the audience is asked “what would you do?”

This film, appropriately titled, is chilling with its absence of sound. From beginning to end we hear only the ambient noise of nature occasionally mixed in with the sound of burning flesh, sizzling water, and the cries and screams of the tortured. This is intentional, and its silence combined with its length creates an arduous and brutal experience. In one of his lowest moments, Rodrigues prays out to God, “The weight of your silence is terrible,” a line so heavy your heart sinks into your chest and so perfectly captures the essence of the film.

Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who is no rookie when it comes to shooting political and religious themed films (Frida, Comandante, Persona Non Grata), creates shots resembling the emotional and dynamic paintings of the Baroque Era. Famous for its religious themes and its depictions of Catholic saints and martyrs, Prieto turns scenes of torture and suffering into dramatic, powerful, and poignant visuals resembling the paintings of Caravaggio and Bernini. The shots of the three Japanese peasants crucified in the ocean as the rising tides pelted them into unconsciousness or families bound by straw and set aflame for practicing Catholicism are as serene as they are agonizing and unbearable. The use of the earth and its elements as means of torture is a reminder of the power of nature and how God’s creations can be used by humans against one another.  

Just as these images draw inspiration from Baroque art, Garfield and Driver’s frail figures and angular features parallel the paintings of the Byzantine era. The preparation for the role was so intense that Driver dropped 51 pounds to achieve this Byzantine look. Throughout the film, Garfield as Padre Rodrigues begins resembling the image of “White Jesus” common in western religious art so much that he even imagines his reflection transforming into that of Jesus himself. This is a perfect example of his character’s arrogance and belief that his religion is the one and only truth.

As a film that does not pass the Bechdel test, casts three white English speaking actors to play Portuguese missionaries, and centers around the physical and spiritual invasion of a foreign country told from the point of view of the Jesuit priest trying to impose his truth on vulnerable peasants, Silence does teeter on the fence of the “white savior” trope. Normally the inconsistency of the Portuguese accents would be off-putting, but the film’s focus still explores the imposing of Western beliefs and traditions on a country that already has its own deeply rooted culture in an outstanding way, resulting in a dark and torturous film that should not be missed.