It is 17th century Japan, a bad time and place to be a Christian. The feudal government is committed to eradicating Christianity through the torture and killing of believers, convinced that the religion is unfit for the Japanese people.
In the Portuguese colony of Macau, the Jesuits receive news that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is living in Nagasaki, Japan, renounced his faith after being tortured. Finding this difficult to believe, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield of “The Amazing Spiderman” (2012)) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) set out on a dangerous mission to find their mentor and uncover the truth.
With the help of a drunken Japanese fisherman Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who was rescued by the Chinese in Macau after being found lost at sea, the two Jesuits manage to find their way to the small village of Tomogi in Nagasaki, where the underground Christians provide them sanctuary. The Jesuits are welcomed enthusiastically by the villagers, who have been unable to receive proper Catholic rites because the village doesn’t have an ordained priest.
The initial euphoria, though, quickly disappears. After Rodrigues heads for a nearby island in search of Father Ferreira, he is captured by the samurais when Kichijiro betrays him. Once imprisoned, Rodrigues’ faith is severely tested through a series of trials instigated by Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), who has found that hunting down Christians is ineffective because murdering them only makes them martyrs. Instead, Inoue wants Rodrigues to apostatize so he can make an example out of him for the villagers.
The ordeals Rodrigues confronts are horrifying. He watches as villagers who are wrapped in straw are thrown off of a boat, left to drown. He then is forced to listen to the sound of suffering villagers who are hung upside down with a cut on their head to prevent the blood from rush into their head.
This places Father Rodrigues in an impossible position: forced to choose between his faith as a Jesuit priest and the lives of dozens who are to die because of his faith. Naturally, he prays to God and Jesus for guidance, but the response he receives is silence.
This is pure hopelessness for a person of faith, yet what makes “Silence” (2016) remarkable is that it isn’t a cynical exercise that questions the very existence of God. Rather, the film embodies the journey of faith, a constant struggle to discovering the meaning of faith.
“Silence” is filled with moments of contemplation about faith, in scenes big and small.
Take, for example, the scene in which the villagers ask Rodrigues and Garupe whether they may step on the plaque of Jesus if it means saving their lives. “Yes,” Rodrigues exclaims and implores the villagers to do it, yet Garupe has the opposite view and immediately rebukes him. The short scene brilliantly illustrates one of the most fundamental questions about faith: is it enough for the believer to believe in his heart, or must he be willing to do much more?
Or take the underground Christians. When Rodrigues finally meets Ferreira, he discovers that Ferriera has apostatized. Trying to persuade Rodrigues to apostizise as well, Ferreira explains that all of Rodrigues’ efforts are for naught because the Japanese, who idolize the Christian God in the form of a sun, will never come to understand Christianity. This may very well be true, but what of the sufferings the Christian villagers endured for their profession of belief in Jesus Christ? Are they not recognized as Christians because they have misunderstood Christianity?
But the most intriguing question is posed through the character of Kichijiro. Here is a man who continued to live while the rest of the family died because only he chose to reject Christ. He has stepped on the plaque of Christ numerous times and betrays Rodrigues by giving him up. For each of these sins Kichijiro seeks the Catholic sacrament of confession from Rodrigues, who eventually finds his shamelessness contemptible. Yet the ultimate fate of Kichijiro begs the question, is it enough for God if one maintains faith, however imperfectly?
None of these questions have easy answers, but the film deserves respect in how it doesn’t dodge from providing an answer. While the conclusion of the film may seem a bit forced, it acts as a strong statement about faith from producer, writer and director Martin Scorsese, who spent decades bringing this project into fruition.
“Silence” is a tiring film, not just because of the theme it addresses, but also because of the way it delivers that theme. The visuals of the sufferings are vivid, and true to the title, there is no musical score to help carry the emotions. Without music, the film is mostly left to the mind to contemplate the meaning of faith even though faith is something that is intrinsically beyond the mind.
For believers and non-believers alike, the deeply reflective journey is more than worth the exhaustion.