On this site before, I’ve bemoaned the state of Christian-centered filmmaking in current American culture going from being niche and practically nonexistent (apart from some run-of-the-mill cable fluff) to becoming an entire subgenre of lowest common denominator, mean spirited, and self-congratulatory pandering to the Bible Belt’s victim complex, peddled almost entirely by the likes of Pure Flix and their ilk – shoddily made, beyond sappy, and downright insulting to anyone that doesn’t fit their very narrow view of what a “Christian” is and should be.
Fortunately, on the complete opposite side of that equation resides Silence, Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-production epic historical drama that neither panders nor sugarcoats its subject matter, at least not in the way so many causal religious audiences are accustomed to. It’s a work of intelligent, empathetic spiritual exploration, and one that single-handedly washes away the memory of all the God’s Not Dead sequels/ripoffs and Saving Christmas-es that’ve plagued our theaters for so long. The reactionary, far-right wing crowd might find this film too slowly paced and open-minded for their tastes, dare it take precious time away from their complaining about the holiday cup designs at Starbucks. But for anyone truly interested in quality cinema that does more than merely reaffirm their own beliefs, they should seek Silence out right away.
The plot concerns two young Jesuit priests from Portugal – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver – who are sent to Japan to seek out their mentor (portrayed brilliantly by Liam Neeson), who has reportedly denounced the Christian faith in public and is even supposedly aiding the Japanese in purging the country of any and all Christian missionaries. Upon arrival, they are first greeted by a small but devoted group of Japanese Christians who, while practicing their faith privately, are more than willing to aid them on their journey. But soon enough the Jesuits cross paths with the ones who mean to do them harm, and are then entangled in an odyssey which poses more than a few tough questions to both them and the audience: is martyrdom a genuinely helpful method for advancing one’s cause or is it merely rooted in a person’s egotistical search for self-aggrandizement? Is the titular “silence” referring to the silence of God or the silence of Andrew Garfield as he refuses to renounce his faith whilst prolonging the suffering of himself and those around him? How is it possible that Deadpool is (at this particular moment) closer to a Best Picture nomination than Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-production passion project?
On the acting front, you honestly could not have asked for a more perfectly assembled cast. Andrew Garfield takes on the lead role here, and with last year’s Hacksaw Ridge he already proved himself to be a fairly capable dramatic lead, and here he proves himself once again. I already mentioned that Liam Neeson plays his role brilliantly and makes one hell of an impression with limited screentime, and Adam Driver rounds out the major English-language players, holding his own more than well enough. But it’s the Japanese cast members who really surprise here – there’s simply too many to mention, but two I’d like to spotlight are Yosuke Kubozuka as the Jesuits’ drunken guide through Japan, who has his own tragic history dealing with persecution for being a Christian. And lastly there’s Issei Ogata as the lead inquisitor and primary antagonist of the story, though he’s never once drawn as an evil or one-dimensional figure. Simply a man with a job to do, and Ogata injects the role with an unusually flamboyant and overly polite type of persona, which ultimately adds to the menacing nature of his cruel actions. In a way, it recalls memories of Christoph Waltz’s breakout performance in Inglourious Basterds.
Being a film directed by Martin Scorsese, it practically goes without saying that the film is a technical marvel, but alas it bears repeating here. Deliberately paced but never too slow (save for maybe a few too many repetitive torture sequences during the midsection), Silence is also a visual feast, featuring lots of large, open space within the frame, perhaps to convey the looming omnipresence of God in the world of the characters, or perhaps lack thereof. The rather somber, melancholic tone might seem unusual for those who only know Scorsese for his more pulpy, gangster type of fare. But this film is almost a spiritual successor to his unsung masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, and the aforementioned grim tone is essential to capturing the drastic nature of the subject matter. Keep in mind, this film takes place in a period of time and in a country where Christian persecution was a real and tangible threat, and not just a far-right fantasy brought on by transgender bathrooms and people choosing to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.
Despite the fact that this film isn’t doing as well as many would’ve hoped for, both at the box office and in terms of garnering awards attention, Silence still demands to be seen regardless. It works equally well as both a great film on its own right and the perfect antidote for all the intellectually dishonest tripe that’s been masquerading as “Christian” cinema for what has felt like an eternity. In that respect, I could see this being an intriguing double feature with The Witch, another recent film that examines the suffering brought upon by blind, unwavering religious devotion in the face of extreme hardship. That, or you could go watch God’s Not Dead, where the slow, painful death of a cartoonishly villainous atheist character via car accident is cheered on as “a cause of celebration” while an uplifting pop song swells in the background. This is Trump’s America now, after all. So we’re all going to die soon and none of this even matters anyway.