For the most part, when people stubbornly cling to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary — such as, say, that the CIA is controlling their minds by remote beams, or that the Earth is flat — we ridicule them or pity them or ignore them. Unless those beliefs involve the existence of deity, in which case we call it “faith” and generally consider its adherents to be brave and noble and devout. Often the veneration of their dedication is, ironically, increased when they overtly consider the absence of actual support for the belief, as if continued belief in the acknowledged face of the lack of evidence were even more brave, more noble. Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God and spent most of her life without feeling any divine presence in it; she was nevertheless elevated to sainthood in September 2016. And now we have this movie, which is all about a Catholic priest struggling to maintain his faith in the face of ever mounting substantiation for the contrary, including the utter silence he gets in return when he speaks to God.
Silence is a longtime passion project for Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo): he has been struggling to bring Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel to the screen for almost 30 years. I suppose we could see a reflection of the movie’s story itself, such as it is, in that. When Portuguese Jesuits Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield: 99 Homes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver: Midnight Special, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) arrive in Catholic-unfriendly Japan in 1639, they find the faithful driven into hiding and ruling warlords trying to crush all vestiges of Christianity, which had been introduced in the 16th century, out of what we with our historical hindsight can see as a perfectly justifiable fear of their own culture being smothered by a Jesus wielded by colonial-minded Europeans. Rodrigues and Garrpe have come on an expedition to find and redeem their mentor, missionary Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson: A Monster Calls, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), who has disappeared into the country and is rumored to have renounced his faith and taken up living as a Japanese. But they soon get sucked into tending to the neglected Japanese Christians and negotiating often violent philosophical standoffs with the local powers that be, most notably Inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). Eventually, the two priests are separated, and Rodrigues is left alone to cling to his faith in God in a society extremely hostile to it.
Now, there are certainly all sorts of earthly ramifications of the adherence to religion (any religion), such as how it shores up political power. Silence is not about that. There are all sorts of interesting stories to be told about how religion perpetuates itself; the notion that doubting a meme only fuels the prestige of holding onto that meme is a brilliant way for an idea to propagate amidst skepticism! Silence is not about that, either. There are horror stories to be found in religious belief, in how otherwise intelligent people will suffer and die for a fantasy. We can’t exactly say that Silence does not see this, because there is an awful lot of torture of Christians occurring onscreen here: Scorsese is brutally frank about the horrifically violent deaths Japanese Christians were put to by the warlords if they would not renounce Jesus Christ. (The Catholic Inquisition did not have a monopoly on sadistic cruelty.) But Silence is about that only tangentially: many mostly anonymous Japanese people are slowly tortured and killed here in the cause of — in the context of the film — a white man’s spiritual journey, for Rodrigues is forced to witness their agony, a consequence of his refusal to renounce Jesus. (This is almost the opposite of a white-savior story, because Rodrigues can’t save anybody. But it still has an unpleasant whiff of the same unsavory superiority about it, as if the challenge to Rodrigues’s beliefs is worth more than other people’s lives.) And in the larger cultural context of Christian stories of martyrs to the faith, which is unquestionably what Silence is, the violence is in the cause of underscoring the idea that being persecuted for your faith is somehow a vindication of that faith even if, seemingly contradictorily, a supposedly benevolent God is allowing your torture. Again, doubt and skepticism is repurposed to strengthen the belief.
But Silence is only about Rodrigues clinging to faith. Not how he manages that. Not even why. Just that he does. It would be nice to clue in the rest of us about how people are able to pull off such a feat, but Silence presupposes that the viewer shares the same devotion, which, in increasingly secular Western society, is a poor assumption to make. (I don’t think that’s true of Scorsese’s other religious film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which I love.) The film acknowledges that it is for English-speaking audiences; no one is speaking Portuguese or Japanese here (and the accents waver all over the place; Garfield’s sounds Irish more often than not). So why can’t it cope with the fact that not many people are this devout? Even many people who consider themselves religious would, I suspect, not be able to maintain their faith in such extreme circumstances.
But the more Rodrigues’s faith is pressed — and at almost three hours in length, Silence does quite a bit of pressing; this is a challenge for even the Scorsese-devout — the more implausible it feels, because we never really understand him as a character. If anything, we start to wonder if Rodrigues really isn’t a very nice person after all: how much arrogance does it require to presume that God is allowing the torture of innocent people merely so that your faith can be tested? Scorsese lets iconography and allusion stand in for character: Rodrigues starts to look more like an idealized Jesus as his persecution goes on; here are some pieces of silver for the Japanese Christian who sold out the Jesuits to the warlords. The director portrays the Inquisitor as verging on comic — he’s almost a bucktoothed caricature of Asians out shameful early Hollywood — as if, perhaps, to suggest that he’s no true threat to a devout Christian.
There isn’t actually much of a journey in Rodrigues’s journey: he’s not even intriguingly stubborn, merely stolidly unchanging. Silence may be meant as a tribute to a living faith, but it’s little more than a slog through unimaginative singlemindedness.