Scorsese’s Silence follows two priests’ religious journey to Japan

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While sound is usually understood as having varying levels, spanning from inaudible to deafening, quiet tends to have the semblance of uniformity. It is seen as simply quiet, with no variation in it. The truth, however, is that libraries often have different forms of silence. There is the hush of the main floor, where people speak quietly to one another, and the stillness of the reference room, quiet except for the sound of paper rustling. Beyond that, there is the utter silence of the study room in a college library during finals. No sound can be heard and the silence itself is deafening to the point where a swiveling chair with a slight squeak is enough to bring about ostracism. Martin Scorsese’s aptly titled film Silence explores the absence of sound through the lens of Catholic missionaries in 1600s Japan. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, respectively. The two travel to Japan seeking Father Ferreira, a captured priest who is rumored to have left the faith. The film opens up with a swell of crickets chirping, bursting with noise, the sound cutting off at its peak, accompanied by the descriptive title. In Silence, Japan is not a good place to be Christian. After missionaries brought the religion to the country, conflicting with the native religion of Buddhism, retaliation came in the form of torture, death and calls to apostatize, or give up Christianity. A distressing letterarrives in Portugal from Father Ferreira, speaking of the religious persecution he and others have faced. Rodrigues and Garupe ask for permission to go to Japan in an attempt to find and save Ferreira. They are the last two priests to be sent, the reasoning made abundantly clear shortly after their arrival. Immediately after landing off the coast of Japan, the two are scurried away into hiding among a secretly Christian village by their guide, Kichijiro.

They are in danger at every moment and are hidden in an abandoned house during the day. An intense moment of questioning occurs when people come asking for help from the priests without using the secret sign, which would indicate that they are from the village. Rodrigues wants to come to their aid, while Garupe holds him off, worried about the dangers of exposing themselves to an unknown group. Torture is shown carefully and purposefully. When blood finally shows up, it is extremely noticeable. Pain directed at background characters in films can be something viewers are desensitized to, so often is death and destruction portrayed in movies and on television. Scorsese uses violence to depict people who are suffering for their faith and willing to stand up to oppression. Not all are so strong. The guide, Kichijiro, is an interesting character as he repeatedly blasphemes his religion, turning sides when pressure is placed on him. Yet, he always comes back to Rodrigues, asking for forgiveness and absolution. His continued appearance brings some humor to viewers, frustration to Rodrigues and the curiosity of trying to understand his beliefs.

Sound and its absence are utilized artistically well. Boats make their way through a silent body of water, the beat of their movement noted with the isolated sound of drums. The sea is shown with no sound, then raging as the waves beat down on punished Christians. They have been hung on crosses, left until the moment their bodies can no longer handle the crush of water. After the fury of sound, there is the quiet and mournful hymn of a lone survivor awaiting his death. Later, at a crucial moment of Rodrigues’ faith, sound disappears completely—he is engulfed by silence. Thematically, silence is significant. Rodrigues repeatedly turns to prayer for himself, for the people and for Japan. He hears nothing back and is left to contemplate the silence. Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic influence is seen in the passionate religious figures, left to consider the fact that their prayer is returned only with silence.

In a moment of thematic balance, Rodrigues is asked why he is silent to the wishes of the imprisoned people and why he does not apostatize to save them. As the film progresses, hope dwindles further and the silence becomes more deafening. In a commencement speech entitled “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace said, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Silence portrays people suffering for what they believe in while others leave their faith, externally or internally, in order to save themselves. Putting aside the ethics of missionaries trying to sway others to their religion, the Christians of Japan did believe in their faith. They chose what to worship.

The film has an emotional poignancy to anyone who can identify it with whatever they worship. Among the beauty and depth, there is sadness and anguish. There are people being persecuted for their beliefs, all while they are surrounded by silence.