I caught the new movie Silence at the Alamo Drafthouse yesterday, and prior to the movie, a short film was run showcasing all the Christian/Catholic symbolism found throughout director Martin Scorsese’s filmography.
If half of those featured scenes were done intentionally by the director, this is a theme he’s been using throughout his career. As such, Silence may make a lot of sense.
Set in the seventeenth century, the film follows the story of one Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as he travels to Japan with his fellow Jesuit Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). Their mission is to discover the true fate of their mutual mentor, one Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). According to a trader who visited Japan, Ferreira had renounced his faith and essentially gone native. Neither Rodrigues nor Garupe believe this and decide to find out for themselves. Their superior informs them that they will be the last Jesuits sent to Japan. The island nation had, for a time, seen a growing Christian population until recently when a government crack-down occurred.
Don’t worry too much about either Neeson or Driver. Neither are given much screen time. This movie is basically about Rodrigues’ own test of faith and how much he will need to endure to maintain it. The problem is, Rodrigues sees poverty, suffering, and persecution all around him, and though he prays, he seems to believe he receives only silence. How can God allow such suffering?
That’s the key to the movie. Scorsese has been working on this movie since 1990, two years after his controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. This is not a movie for easy answers, or one that is intended to perhaps reaffirm the viewer’s Christian faith with simple platitudes like so many Christian films do, but instead challenge the viewer to see what he or she would do in a similar situation. There are no easy answers for the Jesuits here. Rodrigues is an intelligent man, faithful, and well-versed in the Church’s teachings. However, the same holds true for the Japanese Inquisitors and their own beliefs. The suffering Rodrigues undergoes is for the most part not physical, but psychological and spiritual. He is a man put into a deep moral conundrum in a country even the natives refer to as a swamp where the seeds of the Christian faith cannot grow. That Garfield spends much of the film appearing similar to a Renaissance painting of Jesus is not a coincidence (indeed, it is noticed by Rodrigues himself at one point), and the film works well by displaying the culture clash between two cultures, namely the native Japanese one and Rodrigues’ Catholic faith. What the last shot of the film says about Rodrigues, Scorsese, or the Christian faith is left up to the viewer, but I think it should be received in all its complicated glory as a dutiful look at what it means to be a man of God in a hostile time. The film’s biggest flaw, arguably, is it may run a bit too long depending on how you read the ending. Nine out of ten handwoven rosaries.