“[F]aith is like a glass of water. When you’re young, the glass is small, and it’s easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of liquid doesn’t fill it anymore. Periodically, the glass has to be refilled.”
– Kevin Smith, Dogma (1999)
*I saw Silence on Saturday – 14 January 2017.
There’s a saying that to collect all the information in the universe you’d need a computer the size of the entire universe. I think if the power of faith were somehow able to be measured, it would take a scale of similar grandeur, and I have no idea what you’d weigh it against. Faith has led humanity to carry out some of its greatest accomplishments as well as its most horrendous crimes. It’s an intangible thing that that has spawned immovable solid monuments. Whether or not one believes, we owe a great deal of our history on this planet to what’s been done in the name of a higher power.
But as much as believers tell themselves that their faith is immoveable, what happens when they’re faced with a test they could never have foreseen? What do they do when the power and symbols that guide their life are shown to be powerless? What happens when you meet someone who believes as strong as you do – if not stronger – but in something else entirely?
These are the kinds of spiritual questions that woke Martin Scorsese up at night. He grew up wanting to be a Jesuit priest, but wound up being the ground-breaking film-maker who directed The Last Temptation of Christ and once told Roger Ebert that he was afraid of going to Hell (not for making Last Temptation, mind you, but because he’d been divorced so many times). As much as he’s explored faith in his films – being the Catholic guilt that’s been in the background since his first feature, Mean Streets, or the explicit persecution of a religious figure, as seen in Kundun – but never as strongly as he does in his latest masterpiece, Silence.
In the 17th century, Christianity is still a religious minority in Japan. When word leaves the country that Portuguese priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith, his two protégés, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) refuse to believe. Determined to learn the truth and finish their mentor’s work, the two are given permission to enter Japan. Once there, they find themselves confronted with the very obstacles that destroyed Ferreira’s congregation. The two men will be lucky to escape their lives or, more importantly, their faith intact.
I don’t consider myself religious. I was raised… kinda Baptist (long story), grew up around Catholics, had friends who were Jews, strongly considered converting to Islam, and am now just an unaffiliated, science-minded fella. That said, I can’t think of any religious film that has shaken me to the core as much as Silence. This isn’t the pandering hypocritical fluff of Pure Flix or Kirk Cameron, nor is it the fire ‘n brimstone proselytizing of the Left Behind series (also starring Cameron); nor the say-one-thing-but-do-another material you find in Tyler Perry movies. No, this film isn’t trying to convert anyone, rather it wants each member of the audience to ask him/herself why they believe what they believe. This is a film that is absolutely respectful of a system of belief (Catholicism) and simultaneous asks what business missionaries have in trying to convert anyone.
And I get why people get a pro-imperial vibe from the film. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the film as being about a bunch of White men who go to Japan to convert them to a new religion, only for the White men to cry “persecution” when confronted with alternate beliefs. (Mtv News’s Inkoo Kang has a well-written critique of the film on that basis here) As a Black man, I get that, but I don’t agree. I don’t agree because the film spends so much time with people rationally telling Rodrigues that he’s wrong. They flip every one of his pro-Church arguments back on him to explain their own beliefs and why they don’t need Catholicism. And he doesn’t really have a retort, ending most of the arguments in a stalemate. And given that “underground Catholicism” is still common in countries like China the way Islamophobia is rampant in the US, the film is less about which faith is “right” so much about what value you get from believing in a higher being that doesn’t speak back to you.
In fact, I’d argue that the one character just as important as Rodrigues is that of Kijichiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka). The character both restores and shatters Rodrigues’ faith over the course of the film. It would be easy to say the character is a coward, but Scorsese is smarter than that (as shown with Rodrigues in the film’s final act). It’s easy for any of us to say we would or wouldn’t do this or that in a given situation. It’s quite different to be confronted with such a situation. Everyone has a breaking point. Who are you to say it makes you less of a person by acknowledging it?
Since it’s a Scorsese film, it may seem a bit redundant to say that the direction and cinematography are top-notch, but they are. This is a film that takes its time, letting moments naturally build and allowing their effects to linger long after. At 2hr. 41min., it’s understandable that some might find it a tough sit. But if you’ve ever believed in anything, it’s the sort of film you never knew you had to watch.
This may be the first Andrew Garfield performance that I’ve actually liked on its own merits. He was a terrible Spider-Man and The Social Network was great on the basis of the direction and writing rather than his acting (hell, that film even fooled us into thinking Timberlake was a half-decent actor). But here, he actually becomes the actor most critics have claimed him to be for some time. He’s not just navel-gazing with his oddly-curled lip, he imbues Rodrigues with humanity and an inner struggle that’s palatable. I haven’t seen Hacksaw Ridge – his other 2016 “Catholic guilt” film, to which this one will inevitably be compared – but I can definitely say that this is a career highlight for him.
As I type these words the United States is currently under the rule of an hypocritical failed “businessman” whose voter base consisted largely of “proud Christians” (never mind that this guy’s been divorced more times than I can count) who connected with his unapologetic Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This is a terrifying modern example of how the faith of the masses can be used as a weapon.
For the more logical of us, faith is anchor to keep us grounded when the outside world would sweep us away. I say that as someone not subscribed to any particular faith, nor am I sure that there even is any higher power. Regardless, Silence is a film that asks questions about Christianity rarely brought up by those who claim to be its loudest representatives. It’s as much a triumph of the craft of film-making as it is an examination of spirituality. And you don’t need to be well-versed in either to understand its power.