In 1966, Japanese author Shusaku Endo published a book called “Silence” that told a fictionalized version of real world historical events about two Jesuit priests who attempted to spread Catholicism to Japan in the 1600’s. Before this movie, I had never heard about the book or the missionary work in particular, although the Jesuits were everywhere so it’s not particularly a surprise. It’s not really my sort of genre of book, so I never bothered. I probably still won’t.
Silence comes from Martin Scorsese, and stars Andrew Garfield as Padre Rodrigues, who travels along with his friend Padre Garupe (Adam Driver) to Japan on a rescue mission. We learn that in the 17th century, Christianity has been outlawed in Japan; converts are killed and priests tortured. One Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), based on the real life man with the same name, has apparently been lost track of and feared dead.
Then the church receives rumors that Ferreira became an apostate (meaning he publicly gave up Catholicism), but his mentees Rodrigues and Garupe refuse to believe it. So they come up with a plan to sneak into Japan and track down Ferreira. They are helped on the way by drunken wretch Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who may or may not have been a secret Christian. Once in Japan, the two priests hide out in a village of secret Christians, helping them out while trying to avoid the authorities.
The ever present threat is the inquisitor, one Inoue-sama (Issey Ogata), who has been systematically tracking down all Christians in Japan. The movie spends a long time (this film is over two and half hours long) setting up the personalities of the two priests, but because of the narration, we know that Rodrigues is our main protagonist.
Unfortunately, the slowness of the first half is mere trickery to the harsh pain of the final half when Padre Andrew Garfield is finally captured. He is tortured many ways, both himself and others around to work at his sympathy, while the annoying Kichijiro keeps reappearing and making things worse. Rodrigues’ faith is always under attack, and he begins to wonder if his God is even listening — thus the “Silence” of the film’s title.
This is a Scorsese movie, so it is beautiful, with several elegant long shots and brutal real world violence. It is also overlong, and I didn’t think it needed to be quite that long to tell the story. I did like Andrew Garfield here, doing probably his best ever acting work, although I found Adam Driver’s less prominent role more compelling. Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro was pretty great, showing the emotion of a highly damaged fool.
Issey Ogata as the ostensible villain Inoue Masashige was a real highlight, an elderly man with a clear philosophy and a willingness to try anything to win. His interactions with anyone were always fascinating, and he had a truly dynamic performance. But sometimes the other people, while always acted well, seemed extraneous to the plot. For all that it seems we should feel the horror when yet another innocent Japanese Christian is killed, to me it’s muted.
Perhaps that’s intentional, but it’s hard to fathom why. Scorsese is a brilliant filmmaker, but this movie didn’t really speak to me on anything but a surface “film is quality” level. The nature of the religious difficulty is interesting enough, but there’s an assumption that Rodrigues is either right or crazy, and the film tries to have it both ways.
This is an odd one in the oeuvre of Scorcese, a movie that I don’t think will have a lot of wide appeal. A lot of subtitles and not that many recognizable faces. It may be a good film, but I doubt I’ll want to see it again.
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