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Christianity has always been ubiquitous in Scorsese’s best films. The likes of Goodfellas, Casino and Shutter Island all posit subtle questions in the direction of God. Silence, it seems, was an inevitable labour of love – a dedication, if you will – not to the loveable ‘bad guys’ who are punished for doing wrong, but those that were punished for doing what they thought right.
Silence. That’s the most striking part of the film. The not-so-subtle lack of soundtrack is almost deafening. It seems that the lack of needless sound in this film is what truly makes it stand out.
The film follows the journey of two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), whose job is to find out the fate of their former teacher – Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Set in the 17th century, their mission leads them to Japan, a place where the Japanese aristocracy treat Christianity with open contempt and any who dare worship God are put to death in various harrowing ways.
Their task, inevitably, is one shrouded in danger. Indeed, from the moment the priests step onto the island, their guide seemingly abandons them, leaving them to fend for themselves on the cold, wet Japanese coast.
Eventually, they find themselves in a humble, but malcontent village, whose people beg the men to preach, hold confession and baptise the Japanese peasantry. Alas this serves to only endanger the lives of the priests and the villagers.
Mid-way through, Rodrigues and Garupe are separated and the focus of the film turns to the captured Rodrigues and the consequent mental torture that he is forced to endure. It is here that we meet the man behind the religious oppression: the Inquisitor.
The Inquisitor is perhaps Scorsese’s most engaging character. His cruel and methodical regime is counterpoised by a quiet, candid sophistication. The man is even open to compromise. He wants Rodrigues to be obeisant and renounce Christianity , without any regard for the integrity of his apostasy. If he does not, it is not him that suffers, but those around him.
And now, Rodrigues must put a value on his faith, his pride, and the followers of Christianity.
In many respects, the film is typical of a Scorsese classic. Stunning cinematography, committed and convincing acting and even a begrudging liking for the villain are all hallmarks of the great director. But this film has a little something more.
Hallucinations of Jesus pervade – even haunt – Rodrigues’s journey through Japan. In times of doubt, images of Jesus’ pale, un-suffering face flash before his eyes, providing stark contrast to the palpable pain of Rodrigues and the tortured souls around him.
The theological questions behind the film follow you out of the cinema like a bad spell. The film was so captivating, so thought-provoking that walking out was almost like waking up.
Many reviews suggest that the film was repetitive, arduous and, at times, disturbing. And it was. But for me, this isn’t a criticism. It’s the art of the film. Scorsese makes the suffering of the priests and those around them tangible and this, amongst other reasons, are that which make the film so spectacular.
Would I watch it again? Maybe not. Would I recommend it? More so than any film I’ve seen in a very long time. Silence was golden.
‘Silence’ is showing at the Dukes, 8.10pm Tuesday – Thursday of this week