time of difficulty? What is the cost of faith? Silence, Martin Scorsese's film about Portuguese priests in Japan in the 17th Century (based on the novel by Shusaku Endo) is, by and large, an examination of those very questions. It is fitting then that for much of the first hour of the two hour and 40 minute movie the audience must take it on nothing but faith that the movie is indeed headed somewhere interesting.
To be certain, Silence is beautiful throughout, offering green mountainside vistas, darkened caves, small villages, and scenes on the water, but after quickly establishing the premise—Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) are on a search for a lost priest who has reportedly apostatized (given up his faith), Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—the whole thing stalls. The two priests arrive in Japan in a small village only to decide to… do nothing. It is too dangerous, they believe, to go anywhere. They know Japan is dangerous before they leave on the mission, at the time the country is torturing Christians, but upon actually arriving they all but abandon their mission for no particular reason save "danger" and minister to the hidden Christians they have found in the village.
Scorsese's film does indeed feel quite deliberate and so the audience is meant to gain something from this extended village stay. Perhaps it is the horrors of what it meant to be a hidden Christian at the time or a greater understanding of the Fathers' desire to help those around them, but the effect is a sense of aimlessness (purposeful though it may be).
Silence fails to setup any sort of "why" during this protracted village section. Why are the Christians being persecuted so terribly in Japan? Why do the Japanese believe this to be necessary? The movie does a fantastic job offering the persecution, the torture, the terror; but not the why of it, and as Rodrigues and Garrpe spend their days hiding in fear and ministering to the villagers, the question of why looms ever larger.
Just as the question grows to deafening proportions, Rodrigues is captured and the "why" is subsumed by the "what" – what is going to happen to Rodrigues now? What must he do to become a free man once more? At this moment the movie shifts from being about the audience's faith to that of Rodrigues. As Rodrigues sees more and more torture, as it becomes ever more clear that this is all happening because he, Rodrigues, refuses to renounce his god, to become an Apostate, Silence's power grows.
The movie is at its best in the discussions about God and Christianity's place in Japan (if, indeed, at this point in time it has one). Rodrigues has these talks with several different people, most notably the Japanese Inquisitor, Inoue (Issey Ogata) as well as an interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) who spends time with Rodrigues. While Inoue's methods are reprehensible—and perhaps his title combined with his actions is meant as a reflection back on the atrocities being committed by Catholics during the Inquisition elsewhere in the world at this time, but a discussion of this in the movie is wholly lacking—his willingness to dialogue with Rodrigues creates some of the movie's most interesting moments.
Garfield, who is good throughout, is great when his character's faith is tested. Rodrigues watches as he is betrayed by a man, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), he has repeatedly tried to help, he watches as Christians are tortured, and he suffers with them. Every torture is shown on Garfield's face and every question about how this can be happening plays across it as well. While Ogata's Inoue is enjoyable -- the character is written as something of a caricature -- Garfield delivers incredible range.
The post-capture sequences are also the first time that the audience is treated to the point of view from the other side. That is, the earlier portion of the film is told from the point of view of priests who are in hiding and who in fact have no idea what might have happened to Father Ferreira. Do they have reason to fear? Certainly, but until they come face-to-face with the opposition—and even the villagers won't travel to see what is happening elsewhere—there is only so much to offer.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the first portion of the film repeatedly offers up scenes filled with fog, but as the discussions with the Inquisitor begins, the fog dissipates. Everything becomes clear. From the capture forward, Silence is completely engrossing, offering philosophical thoughts from multiple points of view.
And yet, for all the worthwhile nature of the discussions that the movie is eventually willing to have, it is never quite able to fully resolve itself. As soon as the audience sees Inoue, it is clear that he is the formidable Inquisitor of whom Rodrigues and Garrpe were made aware. It takes Rodrigues a long time, however, to work that out, eventually having to be told that Inoue is the Inquisitor. Silence's build to this moment, with its lethargic and misguided first hour, doesn't ever make it clear that Inoue's title ought to be a surprise. In fact, it's far more surprising that Rodrigues doesn't immediately understand that Inoue is the Inquisitor.
Sitting in the middle of Silence is a powerful, intelligent, moving, series of thoughts about how religions might change and shift and adapt when they move from country to country, from people to people. Equally powerful is the film's view on the horrors that humans can perpetrate on one another. As smart as these examinations might be, and they are quite excellent and alone would make the movie worth watching, they are diminished by an overly-long movie which at times loses its way in the wilderness.