Film Review: Silence image

Film Review: Silence

A black screen. The escalating hum of cicadas. One word appears on screen as the noise stops. Silence. Then, the camera slowly reveals hot springs in the Japanese mountains, almost a beautiful sight until you realise why we are there. Five western missionaries are having the scalding hot water poured slowly over their skin, while a sixth, Padre Ferreira, is forced to watch.

It’s a stark, disturbing and gripping opening to Martin Scorsese’s latest. It lets you know that you are in for a harrowing 161 minutes, as relayed by someone in complete control of his craft. Silence is a masterpiece and it led to probably the most profound spiritual encounter I’ve ever had in a cinema*.

The next thing we find out about Ferreira is that he has, apparently, apostatised. His two young Jesuit protégés, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this of their old master and they embark on their own trip to Japan to find him. They are told that the persecution in Japan is so relentless and powerful that they shall be the last priests sent there. Their mission is not just about Ferreira, but the eternal fate of an entire nation. What follows is the two zealous priests witnessing an onslaught of torture and execution, as well as remarkable displays of faith as hidden Christians attempt to live out their faith in the face of extreme persecution.

I’m no Scorsese apologist, as I’ve struggled to connect with his films in the past, but it is clear in Silence that you are watching a master (or several masters) at work. Japan, under Scorsese’s eye, is as bleak and unforgiving as it is beautiful. Everything here is stripped back, from its almost imperceptible score and sound design to frames that carry very little visual information. While there is rarely true silence, this is nevertheless a film of remarkable quietude. Some have called it a slog, and there were numerous walkouts when I was watching it, but I was mesmerised.

He’s backed up by some of the best names in the business. His regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker edits so well you barely notice her work (editors are like your church’s PA team in that sense; you often only notice them when they’re going wrong.) Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto seemingly lights everything with only candle-power and makes haunting use of close-ups, while production designer Dante Feretti recreates 17th-century Japan to striking, stark effect.

Scorsese’s unflinching eye for bleakness does make Silence an exceptionally hard film to watch at times. Three hidden Christians are exposed and executed by being tied to a cross and drowned by the rising tide. At one point, there is a swift and shocking beheading. One crane shot I will not forget swoops out to show a family being burned alive. Such violence against Christ-followers isn’t a thing of the past – over 320 Christians are killed for their faith every month, often by similar methods. As such, any recommendations to see this film come with the caveat that it is, at times, intensely uncomfortable viewing. Yet such brutality (which is never excessive or there to thrill) also makes Silence a powerful and relevant film; it should stir you to pray and act.

What elevates Silence beyond a gruelling, well-made depiction of persecution, however, is the weight behind its ideas. Watching it is like witnessing Scorsese himself wrestle with some of the most complex ideas in theology. Rodrigues’ greatest test comes when confronted with the suffering of others – he is prepared to suffer himself, but instead he is regularly confronted with the suffering of others, namely poor and downtrodden Christians. Their faith throughout this all is their balm, a very real embodiment of Romans 8:18. Rodrigues cries out in anguish to God regularly throughout it, and Garfield’s haunted, physical performance conveys both depths of devotion and equally powerful doubt. He veers wildly between the two states and both feel like credible responses to his experiences.

Meanwhile, their guide to Japan is Kichijiro, played with a manic energy by Yosuke Kubozuka, a man who regularly denies God before coming back to Rodrigues to beg for forgiveness. At one point Rodrigues looks at the tragicomic character and you hear him pray in his head “how could you forgive a wretch like this?” Kichijiro is, at best, a Peter and, at worst, a Judas. Yet there’s something uncomfortably real in his weakness – would we act any differently in the face of such unimaginable punishment? Few films confront the tension between suffering and faith in such a gripping way. One film that comes close is Scorsese’s own The Last Temptation of Christ, a theologically wonky but undeniably fascinating approach to the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

The screenplay, by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, is remarkably even-handed and complicated. The motivations of Rodrigues are muddled as he longs so much to mimic Jesus that he strays into seeing himself as a saviour. The missionaries are accused, with some validity, of cultural imperialism, yet Rodrigues fires back that the truth is true all around the world. It’s a provocative film; few people in the audience will remain comfortable as every worldview is put under the microscope. The central dilemma, of whether to profane an embossed image of God (a fumie) by stepping on it in order to end suffering, comes with no easy answer.

Silence isn’t a film that can really be spoiled, but for the rest of the review I will mention developments in the final act that I can’t not talk about as a Christian approaching this film.

Rodrigues eventually finds Ferreira as a man who has given up his faith and is ultimately confronted with the same choice as his old mentor. Five Christians are being dangled upside down in pits, moaning in agony, as Rodrigues is presented with an image of Christ to step on. “It’s just a formality,” he is told, insidiously, by his translator. Then, something truly remarkable happens; as Rodrigues stares at the image, Jesus breaks the silence. The whole film builds to this decision. To trample on the fumie is an act of apostasy, but it would end the pain of countless Christians. In a moment of silence, Rodrigues hears Jesus speak, saying: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”

At this point, Silence became more than just a powerful piece of cinema; I was deeply, spiritually moved. I left the cinema partly looking inwards to see if I would endure the same for the gospel. But mostly I left with a sense of astonishment at the sufferings of Christians and grateful for a God who would suffer, too, for the sake of me. Earlier in the film, Rodrigues quotes Psalm 22 when asking why God has forsaken him. What he didn’t realise was that while he was using the lines of the psalm to question God, he was also providing himself with God’s answer.


Silence is out in cinemas now.

*I must make an exception for visits to my parents’ church, as they actually meet in a cinema.

← Prev article
Next article →