I invited my parents to see Silence with me on its opening night for a couple of reasons. For one, they’re devout Catholics, so the synopsis of two Jesuit priests traveling to Japan to save their kidnapped mentor was a hook. Also, we’re fans of Liam Neeson, and I wanted to check on Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who had just starred in the well-received Hacksaw Ridge and Paterson, respectively, and seem to be hitting their mainstream cinematic strides.
Anticipation for Scorsese’s latest film took the form of chatter before and even throughout the trailers. But when the credits started rolling to the soundtrack of chirping grasshoppers, the excitement that preceded it had gone. My parents said the movie was a let-down—those expecting a moralizing tale about the power of faith were disappointed.
Scorsese, who was raised Catholic and has been trying to make the book by Shūsaku Endō into a movie for decades now, did not oversimplify the conflict in Silence. The majority of the movie follows Garfield’s character, who repeatedly must choose between leading Japanese Christians in faith practices—at the risk of their capture, brutal torture and execution by the staunchly monotheistic Buddhist state—or to apostatize and cease teaching Christianity in Japan. Although Garfield’s character can justify his own faith, the question throughout the film is whether he can justify endangering Japanese civilians in spreading it: Does the Jesuit mission in Japan do more good than harm, or is it the other way around?
The film doesn’t champion martyrdom over apostatizing, as I have come to expect from movies focused on Christianity. Scorsese doesn’t appeal to that binary, but rather portrays a resolution in which being Christian and publicly renouncing it are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This contradiction might explain the silence as everyone shuffled out of the theater—people were expecting Driver’s and Garfield’s drawn-out anguish (two hours and 41 minutes of it) to somehow be justified by some moral. Silence does not gratify this expectation; it calls the expectation itself into question. ★★★✩✩