Directed by a native but depicting Japan from an outsider perspective, Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 film Silence imagines the country as a forbidding, fog-wreathed land of wind and shadows. Entering under the auspices of pure-hearted compassion, yet also acting as agents in a simmering culture war, the two Portuguese priests at its center find their cultivation of willing souls complicated by a Conrad-esque morass of competing ideologies and objectives. The pair are quickly exhausted and disoriented; pining for some warm bread and a hot bowl of soup, they instead find deeper immersion into a so-called “swamp” in which religious belief has fused with political maneuvering, syncretic Christian mutations forming with ancient Taoist and Buddhist practices. Their quest to untangle this jumble steadily edges into theatrically tinged horror, their increasing gauntness and the film’s use of heavy facial makeup resulting in a pallor that’s both Christ-like and ghoulish.
Finally carrying out a passion project reportedly in the works since the early 1990s, filmmaker Martin Scorsese takes a different approach to this material, arraying similar story elements around a sustained crisis-of-faith narrative. His outlook is both Western and Catholic, a marked divergence from the Buddhist-oriented perspective of Shinoda’s film and the Japanese Catholicism of Shūsaku Endō, from whose 1966 novel both films are adapted. As such, this version of Silence is more focused on the specific spiritual experience of its Catholic interlopers, particularly the trial of having one’s resolve simultaneously tested by external duress and the aloof disregard of your divinity of choice, rather than the detached depiction of a foreign religion crashing momentously on unfriendly shores.
The film begins with two young Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), demanding to be sent to the rescue of their missing mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). After successfully gaining converts in Japan, the now-dominant Tokugawa Shogunate responded to the apparent threat of Catholicism in 1620 by clamping down borders, banning the religion and persecuting converts. The priests’ journey thus amounts to a trip behind enemy lines, one further complicated by their implicit duty to serve the sacramental needs of the faithful. Arriving surreptitiously by sea, they stumble upon pockets of Christian devotees, desperate for renewal after years of practicing their faith alone and in secret.
Fixated on maintaining fidelity despite constant persecution, the Kakure Kirishitans—a local term for “hidden Christians”—exist in a sort of purgatory, dedicated to a passed-down system of belief preserved through a garbled interpretation of official doctrine. This scenario fits into a motif of miscommunication that carries throughout Silence, from letters to diary entries, with the cultural gap between East and West emphasized via bungled rituals, inherent disparities, and mangled names. The priests’ original mission undergoes a similar process of fracturing, each effort at remedying an immediate problem resulting in ripples of harm and destruction. Such conflicts only compound themselves as they attempt to locate Ferreira, rumored to have rejected his station and taken a Japanese name, leaving Rodrigues’s faith in the validity of his mission increasingly embattled.
Scorsese has consistently confronted issues of spirituality and with all the neurotic insistence of a not-entirely lapsed Catholic. With Silence, he does so most directly since 1997’s Kundun. That film was reverential but pessimistic, chronicling the rise of a sacred figure while detailing how the strictures of organized religion slowly wear the luster off the pure, unthinking pleasures of faith, expressed by a gorgeous mountain landscape or a stand of white clouds amid a pure blue sky. Silence pays tribute to the labors of missionaries while making sure to orient them within the socioeconomic context of their time, and the mercantile systems within which their efforts at seeding salvation operated. As in Shinoda’s film, the focus on Jesuits is significant, considering their status at the cusp of the Catholic Church’s dualistic identity as a soul-saving operation and a vector of economic and political power.
Like Kundun, Silence employs animals as a symbolic complement to the story but uses them as repudiation rather than confirmation, their existence wryly commenting on instances of imprisonment or impasse, further evidence of a free-floating, naturalistic God existing outside of traditional dogma. Scorsese makes a similar use of impassive landscapes, conveyed in a painterly, flatly pictorial fashion, even when the events occurring within them are pointedly horrific; the film is never more beautiful than in shots of the churning, incoming sea, lapping against the failing bodies of three crucified believers, both sustaining their bodies and compounding their misery. Such scenes are contextualized within a larger conflict with nature, in which the Japanese are frequently compared to beasts, usually by the priests who see their struggle for survival as validation of their own often vainglorious mission.
The authorities, meanwhile, use the peasants’ alignment with nature as evidence of their unwillingness to entirely accept Christianity, clinging to its promises of paradise while integrating its iconography as window dressing for an ancient agrarian belief system. Chief among these government emissaries is Inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata, in a sharp performance that recalls his role as Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun), a lisping, striding authoritarian with an ever-present retinue of swordsmen, a man of great power and dogged persistence who nonetheless needs help standing up.
The film’s gradually unspooling narrative hinges both on confrontations between Rodrigues and the Inquisitor and the priest’s repeated run-ins with Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a cowardly reprobate who’s been pressured into apostasy, forced to watch his entire family burned alive for their faith. First seen sprawled drunkenly across the floor of a Macanese tavern, he reappears in various permutations, serving alternately as an unreliable guide, a cut-rate Judas, a lost soul, and a faithful servant. Kichijiro, Rodrigues, and the Inquisitor—a real-life figure who likely gained power via a discreet romantic relationship with the Shogun—all appear in a variety of different guises and forms, their apparent changes in status and bearing indicating the film’s broad-minded conception of personal and cultural identity.
Beyond even that of Father Garrpe, whose single-minded, borderline-mad dedication propels him out of the story early on, Kichijiro’s moral conflict, or possible lack thereof, parallels Rodrigues’s own. As the young priest grapples with his own mounting doubts, the wretched adherent’s recurring cycle of absolution and treachery stands out as both a mockery of that struggle and an occasion for self-abnegating mercy, highlighting possible flaws in the system and the essential difficultly of offering genuine forgiveness.
Kichijiro’s status as a far-deeper character here than in Shinoda’s adaptation serves as an instructive example of how Scorsese goes further than his predecessor in terms of digging into the internal mechanics of faith, pushing past a grim burlesque of religious and cultural miscegenation toward a conflicted, ruminative recounting that’s both respectful of religious power and dubious of its methods of dispensation. The mystery of Kichijiro’s true intentions is also key to the fact that the film never offers definitive answers or conclusions, rejecting the brutal actions of the story’s ostensible villains while carving out ample space for empathy and understanding, supplying even these persecutors with valid arguments worthy of abundant consideration. Tapping into the vast pool of vagueness and uncertainty that exists beneath the veneer of rigid, righteous belief, Scorsese crafts a versatile, multifaceted work that encourages serious reflection and contemplation.
As in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the filmmaker seems intent on extricating the humanity from the fossilized ceremonial iconography of Catholicism, employing metallic fumi-e tablets, painted icons, and hand-woven crosses as milestones along this path. Along with Kundun, these three films form a continuum, a progressive portrayal of flawed but persistent conviction that increases the complexity of that rendering through its merging of doctrinal inquiry with ethical and secular concerns. Beyond all of this, Silence works as a standalone portrait of personal crisis, a staggering recreation of a struggle familiar to even those whose lives exist entirely outside of religious stricture, the fight to hold onto some vestige of belief in a world seemingly designed to shake and shatter our moral foundations.