Had Martin Scorsese probed his protagonist’s mindscape more, Silence would have been a more complex, more complete film.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is centred on two kinds of journeys: external and internal. In the former, its protagonist, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Portuguese priest, travels from Macau to Japan in search of his mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has, as widely believed, renounced his faith after being tortured. Rodrigues holds Father Ferreira in high regard and doesn’t believe the news, so he decides to find out for himself. And it is this belief of Rodrigues’s, his faith (in both Ferreira and Jesus), which sets him on an inward journey: a test of his moral duty.
Originally a mediator between God and man, Rodrigues – after getting stuck in a perilous situation, endangering the lives of others – starts questioning his own place in the world. Silence has all the ingredients of an epic. It is grand and ambitious. It features a character who travels great distances and endures great difficulties in search of his truth. It is spread across an island, a village and a city; it spans more than half a century; it has multiple significant characters played by impressive actors (Garfield, Neeson, Adam Driver).
This epic-like quality benefits Silence, and, yet, at the same time, weakens it, because it is, at its core, an intimate drama, centered on a man grappling with questions that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. One of the questions is the role of God in the lives of people. In the villages and towns of Japan, religion – Christianity or Buddhism – is a way of life. People are willing to kill for it; they’re willing to get killed for it. If religion can set someone free, it can also enslave someone. During the course of his journey, Garfield’s Rodrigues is constantly challenged – not just as a priest (the difficulties of forgiving a sinner, “the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt”), but also as a person (his allegiance to Christianity causes the Japanese to murder other believers).
But Scorsese doesn’t dwell on Rodrigues’s quandary, his confusion and moral ambivalence enough. This choice is a bit disappointing because Silence presented a brilliant opportunity to examine religion and what it does to its followers. It’s all the more disappointing because Scorsese sets the stage, hangs around it, and then leaves. For instance, Rodrigues is a virtuous man, believing in peace, in the healing powers of God. But look a bit closely, and you’ll find a man as obstinate as his tormentors, a man as uninterested in another world, another faith, another way of living. Rodrigues doesn’t renounce his faith, and people get killed in return. What does that do to a man, a priest? We don’t quite know. Scorsese doesn’t ignore this question, but does not dive deep into it either. Had Scorsese probed this mindscape more, Silence would have been a more complex, a more complete film. Instead, he makes the Japanese so inhuman and cruel that it distracts us from a profound question: What is more important – a man’s relationship with man, or his relationship with God?
These are tough challenges to surmount and you probably wouldn’t have cared as much about them in a different film, by a different filmmaker. But a Scorsese film “27 years in the making”, unfortunately, comes with its own set of expectations. Much to his credit, Scorsese gets many things right in Silence; he slowly increases the stakes and tension till we get to its climax, which doesn’t start or end with a dramatic flourish, but is more restrained than the rest of the film. A long exchange between Rodrigues and Ferreira, towards the end, is nothing but brilliant, a conversation marked by subtle changes in mood and meaning, making it nearly impossible to deduce what’s going on in the latter’s mind.
Silence also lends itself to multiple meanings, ones even extending beyond the realm of religion, asking questions about self-deception, obsession, life choices and moral failure. Silence is not just about priests, believers, executioners and tyrants, but it’s also a story whose echoes can be heard all around us: of living a soulless life, following orders but not believing in them, longing for affection, craving for home.