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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Silence movie review: not golden

Silence yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
This overlong, underpowered tale of Christian martyrdom, in which iconography and allusion stand in for character, is a challenge to even the Scorsese faithful.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big Scorsese fan
I’m “biast” (con): big atheist
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

This tale of unwavering faith is mirrored, perhaps, in Scorsese’s almost 30-year struggle to bring the film to the screen.

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.

Andrew Garfield waits for Rey to bring him his lightsaber...

Andrew Garfield waits for Rey to bring him his lightsaber…tweet

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,tweet 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.

Many mostly anonymous Japanese people are slowly tortured and killed in the cause of a white man’s spiritual journey…

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,tweet 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.

“Hang in there, buddy. There’s only another hour and a half of the movie to go.”

“Hang in there, buddy. There’s only another hour and a half of the movie to go.”tweet

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-devouttweet — 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 charactertweet: 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.tweet

yellow light 2.5 stars

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Silence (2016) | directed by Martin Scorsese
US/Can release: Dec 23 2016
UK/Ire release: Jan 01 2017

MPAA: rated R for some disturbing violent content
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, scenes of torture)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I count as a friend a chap who’s done the Christian missionary to Japan thing, and even I don’t want to see a film about it. I think it’s fair to say that, apart from film critics, people who don’t have god-feelings and want them stroked aren’t likely to go to see this at all.

  • amanohyo

    I’ve never agreed with a review more than this one. I’m sure at some point suffering and stubbornness in the face of overwhelming counterevidence stops being stupid and depressing and becomes interesting and inspiring, even to an agnostic or atheist. Devoting one’s life to the design and construction of La Sagrada Familia and then getting run over by a tram is moving and tragic, ditto for building a Borobudur in the middle of a jungle. Even forcing thousands of slaves to work and die in the desert so your corpse has a cool city to slowly rot in is magnificently horrifying.

    This plot though… it doesn’t really inspire anything. It’s like a Mormon Missionary episode of The Amazing Race. Two fools boldly allow others to suffer in an attempt to spread horrible ideas in a culture that they haven’t taken the time to understand. As the review states, the plot is a metaphor for the creation of the movie itself. People don’t have to slog through a three hour passion project to know that the missionary position is a boring one (sorry, couldn’t resist). It would be funny if someone adapted Borges’ The Gospel According to Mark into an hour long film as a rebuttal – that’s really the only way this plot would have worked for me, as an absurdly dark comedy.

  • Aaron Jones

    After seeing this, I told a friend that the movie is more interesting to talk and write about than to actually watch. I too wished the movie had been multilingual, having it all in English cheapened the experience for me.

  • Frater Iacobus

    This writer is a Hillary supporter. Christianity isn’t a white man’s religion. Half the world is Catholic or some sort of Christian denomination. Your absolutely worthless..

  • Danielm80

    This writer is a Hillary supporter.

    Yes, she is. It’s interesting that you think that’s relevant to a film about Jesuits in 1639.

    Christianity isn’t a white man’s religion. Half the world is Catholic or some sort of Christian denomination.

    And yet the film stars white men, from the US and the UK. Which tells us something about Hollywood, since they’re supposed to be Portuguese Jesuits.

    Your [sic] absolutely worthless..

    If you only find worth in opinions that reflect your political and religious beliefs, this really isn’t the site for you.

  • Bluejay

    Your absolutely worthless

    Spoken like a true, loving, compassionate Christian.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Half the world is Catholic or some sort of Christian denomination.


  • Frank

    The author of the book on which the movie is based was a Japanese Catholic, not a European.

  • Danielm80

    I’d love to see a really good movie about a Japanese, Catholic person. This is not that movie.

  • Frank

    Well, the book the movie was based on was written by a Japanese Catholic, so you are getting a Japanese viewpoint to that extent. At any rate the story of Catholicism’s arrival in Japan necessarily involves white men. I guess the author should have known that 50 years on from his writing white SJW’s would be criticizing his work for containing white protagonists. Asians, apparently, should only write works with Asian protagonists, or so say white SJW’s.

  • Danielm80

    Wow. It’s like being attacked by an army of straw men.

  • bronxbee

    i was immediately going to look for this when i read frater iacobus’ comment… glad i read down to the bottom first. statements like that make me want to smack someone.

  • Which writer are you referring to? The writer(s) of the movie? Or the writer of the review?

    And then perhaps you can explain the relevance of that.

    Half the world is Catholic or some sort of Christian denomination.

    LOL. Not even close. And also irrelevant.

    Your absolutely worthless..

    “You’re.” Sheesh.

  • And yet this is still a white-centric movie. Imagine that!

  • so you are getting a Japanese viewpoint to that extent.

    Filtered through a white American man’s perspective.

    necessarily involves white men

    But it doesn’t have to make them the central characters.


    Thanks for letting us know we can ignore you.

  • Frank

    MaryAnn, the central characters IN THE BOOK are the Jesuits, who are white. So, as I said, I guess you are saying a Japanese writer cannot write a book in which the main characters are white…?

    As to Scorsese, yes he is white…are we now saying white men are not allowed to make films that take place in non-white countries?

    Basically it seems you just don’t want to watch the movie…so don’t watch it then.

  • Frank

    It is a movie based on a book. The main characters in the book are white. I would say go complain to the Japanese author of the book, but he is dead now, so…

  • People can make whatever the hell movies they want. In case, it is not successful.

    As for the book, I haven’t read it, so I cannot comment on how successful the author is.

    so don’t watch it then

    That’s not how film criticism works.

  • Frank

    I did not realize until this post that you were the critic who wrote the review.

    At any rate, you should read the book. If you had we probably wouldn’t have had to have this whole conversation about the fact that the main characters are white as, yes, that is the way the Japanese author wrote the book. It is a book whose main characters are white Jesuits from Portugal, written by a Japanese.

  • Beowulf

    A much better movie about missionary outreach in Asia is THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM, although all such films justify these cultural invasions as the good white people bringing poor heathens the…well, the keys to the kingdom of God. We only want what’s best for them, even if we have to kill them to save them.

  • I already knew that the characters in the book are white.

  • I really wanted to like this movie, but I don’t think I’ve seen so self-congratulatory and unnecessarily long. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problems with a long film, as long as there is purpose to its longevity. Unfortunately, with Silence, there were scenes where it almost felt like Scorsese was thinking out loud through his shots, forcing his own digressive contemplations on his viewers. Swelling with aesthetic beauty, devoid of pertinence and of, as you said, ideological congruity.

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