It took Martin Scorsese several decades to bring Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 celebrated epic novel Silence about religious persecution in 17th Century Japan to the screen, and this obvious project of passion is one of the filmmaker’s most visually stunning movies to date. Endō, a Japanese Roman Catholic, based his story on an historical figure Cristóvão Ferreira a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who as Christianity was outlawed, was arrested by the authorities but unlike other priests in similar situations, survived and lived in Japan for another 40 years.
The movie starts with Ferreira (Liam Neeson) being forced to witness mass torture of Christians and being told that if he will only commit apostasy simply by stepping on an image of Jesus Christ, then the villagers suffering will cease. The story then jumps forward many years to find two young priests Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and his partner, Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) back in Portugal who have just got word of the persecutions and the news of Ferreira re-canting and they undertake to go on a mission to Japan to discover the truth and rescue Ferreira who had once been their mentor.
What they find when they land in Japan is a regime who inflict horrendous and barbaric torture on anyone they suspect may have converted to Christianity, and even from their hiding places where they have been secreted away, they witness women wrapped in straw and burnt alive and boiling water poured over men who are then crucified. When it becomes even dangerous for the two young priests to stay together in their hiding place, they separate, but very soon both are captured by the Japanese who insist that the apostasy too.
Garrpe dies trying to save a woman who is forcibly drowned, but Rodriquez a prisoner in The Inquisitor’s compound and is locked in a wooden cage and forced to watch and hear the torture of Japanese Christians—some of whom followed and helped him, so that he will relent and agree to step on Christ’s image too. He spends his days wrestling with his faith and repeatedly questioning what God would want him to do. When it looks like he may never agree to recant his beliefs, the Japanese play their trump card and let him finally meet the elusive Ferreira that he had failed to even get a lead on during all these years.
The rumors proved true about the older Priest and Ferreira now with a new Japanese life complete with wife and family and a new name to boot is the one the Inquisitor knows will finally get the stubborn Rodriquez to acquiesce.
For a large part of the two young Priests initial start to their search, the anticipation of the dangers lurking around every corner that occupied every moment of their days, builds up the tension to such a pitch that makes the eventual violence appear even more dramatic. Scorsese deliberately does not shield us from any of the very graphical detail of all the savage brutality that is inflicted so callously, which combined with the dramatic terrain of the remote coastal country area that this is all set in, make for some very powerful imagery.
The movie actually had its world premiere at the Vatican for the Pope and this makes a great deal of sense as it must be more conceivable to accept that these converts would willingly die for religion that in itself is alien to Japanese culture, if you share their faith too. According to the Inquisitor, the official point-of-view on Western religion is they didn’t just consider it a corrupting influence on Japanese culture, but he doubted that Christianity could truly take root in the “swamp” (his word) of his home country.
This may rank as one of Scorsese’s more profound movies, but it will probably not be known as one of his best. The acting was for the most part good, but unremarkable, but what did really shine through were the extraordinarily wonderful Production Design and Costumes, both from three-time Oscar winner Dante Ferretti.