"The Lord was not in the wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire. And then came the sound of a low whisper."
-paraphrase of 1 Kings 19:11-12
How difficult is Christian belief if it relies on a God who speaks in low whispers- or even prefers to remain silent?
This is one of many questions that illustrious director and lifelong Catholic Martin Scorsese asks with his passion project Silence. Scorsese, who spent years training to work in ministry before deciding to turn to filmmaking (a process I also have undergone, thus beginning my personal connections to this movie), is no stranger to exploring the vagaries of faith through cinema. Not without fair shares of controversy: this is the man who shocked audiences with the vengeful violence of Taxi Driver and copious copulation of The Wolf of Wall Street, after all.
His last religious epic, 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, courted controversy from Christian groups for depicting a revisionist version of Jesus' life in which he decides to settle down and raise a family instead of dying on the cross. Directly after that film, Scorsese decided to adapt Shūsaku Endō's novel Silence, and now that project has been realized. Yes, a filmmaker who's been creating for 50 years spent over half his career developing this movie.
If Silence irks any religious groups, it's likely because it forces them to confront questions that they were afraid to ask. Silence is Martin Scorsese's masterpiece of dissecting religious conviction and uncertainty- two or three times over.
The narrative follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests in the 17th century (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who find out that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy in Japan. This means that the former missionary denounced God in public and renounced his faith. The priests jointly decide to make an exceedingly dangerous journey to Nagasaki- at the height of its historical persecution against Christians- and bring Ferreira back to Christ.
Straightaway the level of visual craft on display is unprecedented. Silence's cinematography is a spectacular contradiction: an impossible marriage of the stark and the graceful, wed into Japanese culture. Scorsese draws inspiration from legendary Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa to inform his portrayal of the nation and it pays off gloriously.
Given the scope of its visual aspirations, it's surprising how personal Silence is. Scorsese takes a novel that already dealt with immense spiritual suffering and, with his adapted screenplay (his first writing credit in two decades), imbues it with a lifetime of religious turmoil. Any believer watching who has questioned their own salvation will again wrestle with the possibility of hopelessness; non-religious folk who have studied faith will again face its potency.
So it's obviously not an easy watch. Silence is the antithesis of popcorn entertainment. It's "deconstruct your beliefs in front of your eyes and ask you to rebuild" cinema. Your existential mileage will vary depending on your opinion of divine existence, but there's depth for worldviews that live strictly in the human realm too- primarily concerning how people treat those who believe differently than them. The physical and mental torture inflicted under such pretenses speaks volumes.
Many of Silence's themes fall under the question, "how much can faith and doubt coexist and still be called faith?" There's urgency to this inquiry during the first hour of the film, as the life or death nature of the priests' mission allows Scorsese to establish a thriller tone.
But then Silence spirals into the weakness that prevents it from achieving the status of a classic religious epic: its runtime. The first hour of urgency, faith, and doubt induces a raw emotional response. Then the second hour rolls around, and Scorsese keeps asking the same questions. Then the third hour trudges on, and "we get it, Silence."
The last act is incredibly powerful and worth the long journey, but there's no denying Silence is repetitive. Its excessive length eventually turns emotional response into intellectual exercise, as the film stays thoughtful but cannot maintain its heart-rending fervor forever. The most moving moments stick in my memory and affect me in my own faith and doubt, but during the movie some are dulled by monotony.
Is Silence still terrific? Without a doubt. Repetitive, overlong Scorsese is still miles ahead of your typical movie experience. And I must commend Andrew Garfield: his performance is not as nuanced as the film around him, but this is easily the best work of his career.
See Silence in theaters. Let its low whispers seep into your mind and heart.