Silence (MA15+)

In a word: Questioning

Based on Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s classic 1966 text of the same name, this film tells the story of the hardships European missionaries faced in Japan during the 17th century.

After initially finding Japan fertile ground for evangelism, missionaries to the land and those Japanese who have converted now face hostility from the warlords who govern the land and are arrested and imprisoned, facing torture and even death as they are commanded to deny their faith.

Liam Neeson in Silence

APOSTATE? Liam Neeson stars as the missing Portugese priest Fr Ferreira in the Martin Scorsese film, Silence. PICTURE: Kerry Brown.

Into this are thrust two young Portuguese Jesuits – Fr Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) and Fr Garupe (Adam Driver) – who head to Japan in search of another missionary, Fr Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who, according to rumour, has apostasized and is now living among the Japanese as one of them.

Unable to believe such a scandalous report, they arrive in Japan and, guided by a broken Japanese fisherman, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) they’d found in China who may be a Christian, connect with Christians who are forced to keep their faith a secret, conducting their activities in hidden locations under the cover of darkness.

They eke out an existence among the ever grateful Christians before they are eventually arrested and their faith put to the test in ways they’d never imagined. The story focuses on Fr Rodrigues as he is brought before the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata), a man whose eccentricities at first conceal his absolute dedication to his mission to ensure Christianity does not take hold in Japan. 

Directed by Martin Scorsese, this slow-moving, superbly acted story explores issues of faith, doubt and persecution and comes at a time when persecution and what it means to live as a Christian under such pressure remains a live issue for Christians all over the world today.

It asks some hard questions – What does it mean to be faithful to the calling of Christ? Would you recant your faith to save the lives of others? Why does God seem to remain silent as those who love Him suffer? – and resists the temptation to jump to easy, pat answers. As with Endo's book, there's a bleakness here, particularly in the portrayal of the Christian spiritual life, but don't let that put you off engaging with some of the questions Silence raises.

The camera lingers hauntingly over misty, mysterious landscapes – adequately conveying a sense of the alien nature of the land as seen through Portuguese eyes as well as the harsh lives of the Japanese peasants yet at the same time revealing a stark beauty. A highlight is the soundtrack which, playing on the film’s title, is used sparingly in support of the story.

It is not necessarily an easy film to watch yet while there are scenes of brutality, it’s not visceral in the way films like The Passion of the Christ were. It is a long film but that’s not here a bad thing – Scorsese uses the time well to build suspense and explore the issues in some depth while keeping the scale small (yes, the film is set against the broad backdrop of Japan’s at times violent resistance to Christianity but that wider picture is only glimpsed from time-to-time – the focus is kept tight).

A tempered retelling of what is a deeply moving and challenging story that can’t help but confront people of faith.