MARTIN SCORSESE just can’t leave God alone, whether directing films secular (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc.) or sacred. His latest offering, Silence (Cert. 15), is about Jesuit missionaries in Japan. It became his dream project soon after he completed The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). It is no surprise that the young Scorsese began training as a Roman Catholic priest before finding that his true spiritual calling was filmmaking.
This is the third adaptation of a famous Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo, himself a Roman Catholic. The film, set in the 17th century, after an overture of silence featuring sounds of wind, sea, and fire, introduces us to Fr Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Captured by the Japanese authorities and subjected to torture, he is also forced to watch many hapless converts undergo similar treatment.
Their government has become suspicious of Christianity, perceiving it as stirring up rebellion in readiness for European colonisation. Some time later, in 1641, other Portugese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), attempt to locate their mentor. All they know is that Ferreira has gone missing, and rumour has it that he has apostatised.
Undeterred, they take a long upriver journey. It is reminiscent of the Apocalypse Now (1979) boat trip into the heart of darkness which Willard takes to meet his nemesis. We, the viewers, can already see it will end in tears.
Along the way is a cat-and-mouse game whereby the missionaries avoid arrest, often owing to the amazing loyalty of indigenous Christians. Also running through the narrative is the theme of a Judas figure who frequently confesses his treachery only to repeat it.
The nub of the film lies, however, with the ultimate imprisonment and torture of Rodrigues. He has only to reject his faith publicly, and all this will be brought to an end for him and many others. How much suffering can he endure, and should he bother?
This is what fascinates Scorsese. In a secular age, he asks: “Do you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation, or some sort of search for, that which is spiritual and transcends?” The moral dilemmas are enormous.
As the composer James MacMillan, whose Third Symphony is named after the novel, puts it, Endo’s “silence” is that of God in the face of terrible events springing from the merciless propensities of man: torture, genocide, Holocaust. The film version goes some way to addressing this issue. Rather than lament our failure to emulate Christ’s agony, it implies (to borrow from R. S. Thomas) that we are at our best when living within listening distance of the silence we call God.
The film questions the efficacy of mission, and claims more than once that not even Christianity grows in a swamp. The risk is that such quietism may collude with evil; but, as Ferreira argues, there are opportunities for little victories of the soul. The cruelties make Silence a hard film to watch. There is a feeling of being at the foot of the cross, experiencing vicariously contemporary persecutions around the world, questioning not God’s silence, but our own in the face of them.
Discussion guides are available from www.silence.damarismedia.com.