My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.
Before Martin Scorsese pursued his passion for cinema and become a filmmaker, he studied to join the Catholic priesthood. As a result, he has always used film as a way to grapple with his own religious beliefs. In 1987’s The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name, Jesus Christ as a man dealing with his own personal demons, with his guilt from building crosses for the oppressive Romans and with God constantly speaking to him. In 1997’s Kundun, we follow Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama from childhood to adulthood as he deals with Chinese oppression. With his latest film, Silence, adapted from Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, Scorsese completes his trilogy of his most explicit religious epics in jaw dropping fashion. Simply put, in a resume filled with iconic films, Silence might be one of Scorsese’s biggest achievements.
Silence takes place in seventeenth-century Japan, a country marked by religious turmoil with faithful Christians being forced by powerful, oppressive feudal lords to publicly renounce their religious beliefs. Two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garrpe, played by Adam Driver, are sent to Japan to find their missing mentor, Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, who is said to have renounced his faith. There, they struggle with their own faith and question God’s silence as the faithful are being tortured and killed for their belief in Him.
Admittedly, Silence, is not for everyone. Look at the box office returns. Look at its absence from awards season. It is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best sound possible. It is a nearly three-hour religious epic that feels twice its length. It asks a lot from its audience. It’ll make you think about your own faith and beliefs. It is a film you have to let it wash over you like a cinematic baptism. Ironically, Silence takes pleasure in its own silence. It is quiet, very methodical in its pacing. It takes solace in it. It lingers on its barren environment. It is sedate even in moments of brutal, inspired acts of violence. The first hour or so contains little dialogue. The dialogue we do get is religiously dense. The performances from Garfield, Driver and Neeson are mostly restrained and driven by their own inner conflicts. There’s no moments of happiness. There’s suffering. It lacks certain stylistic flourishes we grow accustomed to seeing from Scorsese. It is a rapid departure. There’s a stillness to his camera. Thelma Schoonmaker’s edits aren’t as jarring and rapid. It possesses its own kind of energy. It operates on its own wavelength. There’s no anti hero we root for; one we sympathize with. Religion is the anti hero. There are no real, definitive answers because religion provides none. There is only belief. That is all we have in the face of suffering.