Like I do with many great films, I approached reviewing Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” with a reverence tinged with trepidation. No matter how many seemingly objective angles I took to evaluating it, I could not find a path that did not somehow cross with my own experiences and beliefs as a person of faith. Though this underscores just about every review I write, rarely does it bubble up to the surface. But since today is Easter, I thought it made sense to craft a hybrid akin to Scorsese’s work: a personal statement and a prayer.
I’ve been grappling with the film for the past three months; as Matt Zoller Seitz astutely observed, “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.” Scorsese himself has wrestled with Shusaku Endo’s novel for longer than I have been alive. Christian thinkers themselves have wrestled with these issues since the religion began two millennia ago. To project any kind of intellectual authority or issue some kind of vast, sweeping statement about the ideology and thematics of “Silence” is naive and preposterous. In its searing specificity, the film gets beyond the simplistic discussions of religion that predominate our polite culture and delves headfirst into the questions that demarcate contemporary Christianity.
It goes without saying that Scorsese’s involvement in the film ensures “Silence” does not issue the kind of self-congratulatory pat on the back and reaffirmation of most religious films. He zooms past the “what” of faith and immediately wades into the murkier waters of the “how,” specifically as it pertains to evangelism and discipleship. 17th century Portuguese fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail for Japan, where their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) disappears and allegedly disavows the Catholic religion.
Their rescue mission brings them into contact with persecuted Japanese Christians practicing their faith in private, an experience that tugs the fathers’ beliefs at opposite directions with equal force. On the one hand, their torture at the hands of Japanese inquisitors makes the abstract concept of martyrdom painfully real, humbling them tremendously. Yet these supplicants also view the priests as direct conduits to God to the point that they take on a God-like status, inflating the latent self-righteousness undergirding many of their actions.