A dense fog covers many of the early scenes of 17th-century Japan in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the film adaptation of Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, which the director has been waiting 28 years to make. Though the movie was shot in Taiwan, not Japan, the fog seems to have rolled in right off the set of a 1950s Kenji Mizoguchi film—just one of many instances where the rich past of Japanese cinema informs Scorsese’s filmmaking.
By the close of the film, the fog has all but dissipated. The final scenes are shot with a notably clear, crisp, and bright aesthetic, giving visual voice to a character’s proposition that the Japanese Christians of this time have misunderstood the sun, not the Son, to be God. Yet, thematically, this story of faith only grows more opaque and befuddling as it unfolds. Why the curious juxtaposition is just one of the many questions Silence is more interested in asking than answering.
In Silence, two Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) journey to Japan in search of a mentor priest (Liam Neeson) who has vanished and allegedly abandoned the priesthood. On arrival, they are taken in by Japan’s underground community of Christians but are soon beset by a Buddhist inquisitor (Issey Ogata) who tests the limits of the Jesuits’ faith. Under the inquisitor’s captivity, the Jesuits face the impossible choice of watching the murders and tortures of dozens of innocent Christians, or renouncing their own faith to free the Christians from their torments. The title of the story here invokes the question plaguing Garfield’s Fr. Rodrigues throughout the film: what are the faithful to make of God’s apparent silence, especially in the face of such horrible suffering? If this is the defining question for Scorsese, and the text’s main draw for him and his filmmaking impulses, then I consider it a point in the film’s favor that the quieter questions posed by details on the periphery held my interest instead.
What, for instance, is the viewer to make of the Jesuits’ guide, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka)? A twig-like man with a mop of unruly hair, Kichijiro keeps on betraying the priests and his fellow Christians, then skitters back into the underbrush like a leaf insect who drops his camouflage in many unsuspecting returns, asking forgiveness and seeking confession. The easy way out of grappling with this character is to deem him, as I’ve seen some capsule reviews do, the story’s Judas figure. But Judas hanged himself after betraying Jesus—the part about seeking reconciliation comes more with the territory of Peter, and, by extension, all subsequent Christians.
Or what about the fact that Fr. Rodrigues is, well, not exactly a model Christian himself? (Lest we get to thinking that schools of Christian formation in Ye Olde Days produced only exemplary graduates.) Watch his appetite get the best of him as he breaks a days-long fast without saying any sort of grace, or consider for a moment what it says about his own spiritual formation that he embarks on this foolhardy voyage in the first place: seemingly not so much to bring Christ to Nippon as to track down a mentor who, for all he knows, may not even be alive anymore. (He’s alive all right, but we only learn the precise circumstances late into the film.) There’s entirely too much to consider in this movie on a single viewing alone, and for the honest complexity of its knotty and truth-seeking questioning, unusual among contemporary Hollywood movies, Silence has handily made a case for itself as a work of great art.
The past month has provided no shortage of conflicting takes on Endo’s novel—is this a beautiful work of Catholic storytelling? Is it propagating heresy, too toxic for the faithful to touch?—and I won’t suppose myself smart enough on theological matters to cast my lot into either of these camps. I mostly side with former Christianity Today film critic Alissa Wilkinson, who in Vox describes Endo’s novel as “a book that refuses to behave.” Endo’s book contains far more historical and cultural nuance than the average American moviegoer could understand upon immediate and casual acquaintance with the work. And personally, since I’m not a Catholic, I suspect some of my theological misgivings with the story have their roots outside of the text itself.
The movie, like the source material, just doesn’t behave the way you would want the long-gestating passion project of one of the world’s greatest directors to. Forget the theological hangups for a second: can we forgive Garfield and Driver for their bad accents? Is great cinematic art by definition free from unintentional technical blemishes, and if so, what does it mean that the contrast levels between shots fluctuate wildly and purposelessly—the result, I’m sure, of the demands on shooting 35mm film in rural Taiwan on a drastically tight-waisted production budget? Or that you can hear microphone feedback in an otherwise harrowing sequence of martyr-making? (If that was just a problem with the projection in my theater, shame on them.) Is there some systematic way of proving that the movie’s visual callbacks to classics of Japanese cinema are any more or less of a mere homage than, for instance, the old-Hollywood throwbacks in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (for which that film has come under some fire)? Are these things excusable simply because it’s Martin Scorsese behind the camera here?
To say that Silence left me speechless as I watched the credits roll wouldn’t just be a pat rhetorical exaggeration on my part. I had been turned too much in on my own thoughts about forgiveness—in the Christian life as well as in film criticism—to know quite what to say. It may just be the Eastern Orthodox in me speaking, but the question of God’s silence was the least interesting facet of this movie to me. That rascal Kichijiro and his increasingly more pained demeanor, however, keeps coming back to mind just like he keeps crawling back from his various betrayals seeking God’s mercy. God will give it to us, but it won’t necessarily be easy to receive—especially knowing just how likely we are to fall back down again.
Tim Markatos is editorial fellow at The American Conservative.