The movie concerns a pair of jesuit priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who travel to Japan in search of a fellow priest, played by Liam Neeson, who went off the radar there some years before.
The movie takes place in the 1600's, during a time when Christianity was outlawed in Japan and was punishable, for those who refused to renounce their faith, by death. This makes the journey taken by the pair especially perilous and they encounter a great deal of hardship along their quest.
This has been a passion project of Scorsese's for many years and it recalls the director's previous explorations of religious faith (Who's That Knocking At My Door, Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun). In some ways Silence is a far purer distillation of that exploration, but it tackles the same two or three themes that are present in all of those films. Namely, faith, guilt and repentance.
Faith: Is it enough to have faith alone? What do we do with our faith, what purpose does it serve if God is silent to our cries? Is the purpose of faith to carry us through God's silence? If we suffer, does God suffer beside us, or is our faith our intended companion amidst murky waters?
Guilt: Or more specifically, am I worthy? Am I worthy of my faith, am I worthy of my God, of my belief in Him? If I am not worthy, as scripture teaches, then what is the point of my sufferance for God? If there is no point in ever being good enough for God's love, as a result of our inherently sinful nature, why does God bother with us at all? Perhaps He doesn't. Perhaps His silence is proof of abandonment.
Repentance: I am sorry I was born a sinner. I am sorry for my sins and seek to right myself with Thee. But what is true repentance, if we repent knowing we will sin again? Why repent at all if there is no possibility of perfection? In life, when you do something wrong, you can ask forgiveness, or pay back your debt, vow never to do it again and succeed. You can cheat on your spouse or significant other, for example, and if they accept your apology and forgive you, it is entirely possible to live to your dying day being completely faithful to them. In the church, you can never be free of sin in this life. So why mend a fence that cannot be mended? Like fixing an airplane wing with scotch tape. It's only a matter of time before the tape gives and the wing breaks again.
These three themes and the questions they bring, along with an absence of resolution, are at the heart of Silence. Different people will read this film different ways. For me, it highlights the insanity of organized religion. The men attempting to wipe it out from their country, yes, but also the priests, whose stubborn, prideful faith causes the needless deaths and suffering of so many. Is it so important to stand tall in your beliefs and refuse to renounce your God, even if it means saving the lives of others? Why not just say you renounce your faith, even if you don't mean it? Will God, in His infinite wisdom, not understand? Does He not see the truth of what's in your heart? Can He not differentiate between the heart and the lips?
And, finally, if religion was a scale, and on one weighing pan was all the good it has caused, and on the other pan was all the bad, in which direction would the beam tilt? And if it does tilt towards the bad, at what point do we admit that it is indeed, as Christopher Hitchens postulated, a poison?
Tough questions from a tough movie. A movie I will have to return to a couple more times to fully grasp its breadth, both in narrative and scale. And while I did find the movie about thirty minutes too long, there was never a moment I wasn't moved by the quality of its images, by the immense talent of its actors, or by the calibre of its dialogue.
Make no mistake, this is Scorsese at his most European, his most intentionally indulgent, but this is also Scorsese displaying all that makes him possibly our greatest living director. And his influence can be felt from far and wide.
The influence of this film can already be seen on me and this intentionally indulgent review, which is probably about three paragraphs too long itself. But I could do worse as a writer than to take a page out of Martin Scorsese's book of the arts.