Films that center around a character’s religious beliefs tend to be hindered creatively due to the limitations of conflict. No matter what time or setting it takes place in, films like Silence are usually about a character who’s religious faith is tested against all odds. This test usually comes in the form of punishment, torture, and/or death given by people who believe in a different religion from our lead character. In this essence, Silence offers nothing new in that regard. It’s still the same conflict at the end of the day, one that audiences have been told about literally since the beginning of the common era.
But what makes such a familiar story so compelling when done right is what it manages to say about the human condition. Martin Scorsese’s passion project explores a familiar tale in a devastatingly intimate manner. Beyond simply being a film about the power of faith, Silence is also a film about exploration and what separates and unites two vastly different cultures and nations from one another.
Told primarily from the perspective of Rodrigues, Silence follows two Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan to look for their mentor and spread the word of their religion. Almost immediately their journey proves to be more dangerous than they expected, as they are forced to live in hiding among villagers who, despite the threat of death, practice Christianity in secret.
It’s tricky presenting a story like Silence to a modern audience. Stories about martyrs who suffer for their beliefs is in real danger of feeling outdated and even ridiculous when seen through the eyes of the present. You don’t even have to be a non-believer to scoff at these characters’ insistence of sacrificing their very lives in the name of their God. In many ways, this is the ultimate challenge that films like Silence must overcome, because if the audience thinks that the characters are being foolish, it becomes difficult to sympathize with them.
But because of Scorsese’s expert handling of the story and the characters, Silence is a film that is deeply powerful and captivating. Watching these characters’ journey of faith is so emotionally involving because Scorsese brings an unmistakable sense of authenticity in every scene. We not only sympathize with these characters but live in their very shoes, regardless if we have religious beliefs of our own or not. It’s a very human story that not only speaks about faith, but also about the determination of people in believing something that’s greater than themselves.
Even more impressive about Scorsese’s direction is the restraint and grace that he brings to the story. Silence is deliberately paced and features a subdued artistry from a filmmaker who’s known for his intense films. Along with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese takes a step back from his numerous stylistic instincts and brings a solemnness to an already weighty subject matter.
Most important of all, Martin Scorsese also brings a necessary balance to the moral dilemmas being faced by the characters in the film. Silence focuses on the persecutors as well as the persecuted. It goes into great length to make audiences understand the motivations of characters who would otherwise be unsympathetic and villainous. There is a complexity in each character that the film explores, painting the film with more shades than mere black and white, resulting in a rich and satisfying experience from the very beginning to the very end.
Featuring a cast of incredible actors with yet another phenomenal performance from Andrew Garfield, Silence is a remarkably passionate and emotional film that reminds us why seemingly outdated stories can still be relevant today.