Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson, Yosuke Kubozuka, Ciaran Hinds
Rated R for Some Disturbing Violent Content
There is a certain type of person that sees the world in black and white. They take everything they see on either faith or fact (which for them are often the same thing). They are certain of everything and unshakable in their convictions. Such is the case with more than a few people who regularly post on the American Family Association's Facebook page. "Silence" takes two people of this mindset and challenges them and their views from all fronts. I'm surprised that this film hasn't been met with a storm of controversy. It's certainly more provocative than "The Da Vinci Code" or "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."
A Jesuit priest working to spread the faith in mid-1600's Japan, Father Ferreira (Neeson), has just denounced God in the public square. His two protégés, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver) think this is absurd, and go into Japan to discover the truth. At the time, Japan had outlawed Christianity and uses torture and murder to suppress it. The two young priests remain hidden by the faithful and preach to them to keep the faith even in the face of certain death. But seeing the horrors of martyrdom makes them question their faith.
"Silence" is less about traditional narrative and character tropes than about posing philosophical and theological questions. Although it's based on a novel, it feels more like a play. It's very heavy on dialogue and ideas. Those expecting something like "The Departed" or "The Last Samurai" are going to be bored. It's a good movie, but you have to be in the right mindset.
After seeing the film, I would have expected the film to be greeted by controversy. This challenges many tenets of Catholicism, although people of other religions could be incensed too. It dares to ask difficult questions of faith, such as if a priest sees someone suffering to keep him hidden, is he bound to reveal himself to alleviate their suffering? Or what about martyrdom? Is allowing people to die because you won't step on an image of Jesus an example of faith or stubbornness? More importantly, what is true faith? Is it what you say, or what you do? In other words, is the person who renounces God with his words to save someone's life (but still keeps the faith at heart) a better Christian than the one who refuses to do so?
You can see why such questions would be provocative. The Christian faith is filled with people who have suffered greatly for their faith. Even paying the ultimate price. And they're seen as heroic models of faith. But is that sacrifice really necessary? Like, if you're facing execution and just say that you renounce God only to save your own neck and not mean it in your heart, is that a sin or common sense? And unlike "God's Not Dead," which only pretends to ask these questions to rouse the fanatically faithful, "Silence" takes them seriously. It makes us question our beliefs and our values.
Martin Scorsese is perhaps the perfect director for this material. Scorsese was raised Catholic and even seriously considered becoming a priest. But now that he's an agnostic, he can see both sides of the coin and present them in an even-handed fashion. There are no easy answers and while Scorsese has his own conclusions, he allows room for disagreement.
The performances are strong across the board. Andrew Garfield continues to grow as an actor and take on risky roles, and he nails the part of the idealistic priest. Rodrigues values the ideals and actions of martyrdom from a distance, but up close it's a different story. He begins to question the line between idealistic faith and being human, and that causes him a great deal of inner conflict. Adam Driver is also very good as Garrupe, who is perhaps weaker and more concerned with self-preservation than martyrdom. He can talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, he cowers. Issei Ogata is threatening as the brutal overlord who knows exactly how to cause the most pain to Christians. More importantly, while they don't justify his methods, his ideals have merit. And Liam Neeson shows up as a man who is either a realist or a serpent in the garden (it's up to the viewer to decide which).
Alas, the film is too long. It is not necessary to spend nearly 3 hours mulling over these questions. Scorsese has a lot to say, but a leaner and tighter paced film would highlight the film's strengths. I admit to checking my watch a few times during the film. But at least it's for good reason and not to stretch his ego.
"Silence" isn't for everyone. Nor is it intended to be. It's a movie to watch, think about, and talk about with friends. It's a movie of ideas, and for that reason, I think it will be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. I certainly will be seeing it again.