Seventeenth century Japan saw the country at the height of its isolationism. Very protective of its culture and way of life, the island nation wanted very little to do with the outside world, especially Western religions, which were seen as a threat to the stability of the shogunate. But one cannot stay hidden from everything, as was the case for the spread of Christianity in Japan. In the time that this story takes place, Christians have been forced into hiding, the government doing all it can to crack down on the influence of the religion. Silence is not just a simple take on religious persecution, but one that speaks to the larger theme of cultural appropriation. When, if ever, is it right to try to force your way of life upon others? What lengths should one go to protect their way of life? These are tough questions, ones that seem very relevant now, but Martin Scorsese handles them with grace.
Silence tells the story of two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who get smuggled into Japan to find their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). Once there, we are shown what it was like for Japanese Christians at this time, mainly through the eyes of our two protagonists and the common folk who have gone into hiding. While the focus may be on the one persecution of one specific religion, it is easy to replace Christianity here with any other core set of beliefs and get the same effect from the film. Because of that I am hesitant to put this in the category of a pro-Christian story, instead seeing it as a meditation as to the lengths people will go to for their deeply held ideals. While the scenes of torture are very effective at giving you sympathy for the victims, Silence tries to show that these matters aren’t so one sided, and while the intents of the missionaries are noble in their eyes, there is a thin line between the spreading of ideas and forcing them upon others.
None of this would work without great talent, and Silence is fortunate enough to have it in spades. In works of his where violence takes a center stage, this may be one of the most reserved Scorsese film I have ever seen, but it works well. There is only one scene of gratuitous violence, despite all of the torture that is on display. Credit for that goes to the excellent cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, who films these scenes with an intense sense of purpose, showing you just enough to maintain a sense of horror at what is happening without going overboard and causing you to turn away. These scenes are beautifully shot and stick with you long after the credits roll. It is also worth noting the performances to the two leads. Andrew Garfield in particular has really showed his acting chops this past year after two unfortunate outings as Spiderman. His character is stubborn and a bit cocky in his ways, and Garfield plays the part with a subtlety that is becoming of a priest. Adam Driver continues his case for being the only cast member from Girls that will be getting any meaningful roles in the near future.
The biggest shortcoming of Silence is the pacing. The film drags in multiple spots, with scenes going on for longer than necessary. The film goes on for a whopping two hours and fourty minutes, and the story would have been much more powerful if that was cut down. Scorsese is no stranger to bloat, but Silence (along with a few other of his films if we are being honest) would be much better off if he had simply trimmed the fat. As it stands, Silence is a flawed but ambitious take on a topic that means a lot to him. If only it was a little tighter, the audience may have found that same passion.