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Martin Scorsese's Silence: A Brutal Question of Faith, Humanity, and Existence

In his Cairo Scene debut, Marwan Omar delivers an insightful analysis of Martin Scorsese's latest feature film and life-long passion project 'Silence'.

Staff Writer

Martin Scorsese's Silence: A Brutal Question of Faith, Humanity, and Existence

How long has it been since you decided that your dream is unrealistic and isn’t going to come true? A couple of years? Maybe 5? Well, you’re still far ahead of Martin Scorsese, who waited 28 years for his script to see the light of day, until last December, when ‘Silence’ started screening in cinemas. Now that his life-long dream came true, the great director’s story is telling you that these motivational quotes you keep reading aren’t entirely false. All you have to do is keep believing and working. Someday, your dreams will do come true, even after a quarter of century.

In his new picture, Scorsese takes us back in time to the year 1640 in the old Japan, where killing and torturing Christians is the sole priority of the country’s rulers. The Japanese authorities were violent, bloody, and adamant about expelling Christians from their lands. The then relatively new religion knew its way to their country, with the arrival of Portuguese priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who believed that Japanese culture would welcome Christianity. Being the symbol of this new faith and the spiritual leader to Christian Japanese, the authorities target him, showing him all their inhuman torturing skills to abandon his religion so that his Japanese followers would follow suit. Later, News travels to Portugal that Ferreira had abandoned Christianity in public and that he has been living as Japanese for years. Father Valignano, the one in charge of the Portuguese church brings the news to two former students of father Ferreira’s, who offer to ignore all the risks and go find their master. The journey begins for those two young priests: Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) where their faith is tested like never before.

Helpless Father Ferreira in the Opening Scene

For the first time since Casino (1995), Scorsese’s name was back on the poster not only as the director, but also as a screenwriter, and we can surely tell that he hasn’t lost it! Silence is a beautifully written script by the old director, alongside Jay Cocks, who has worked previously with Scorsese on “Gangs of New York” back in 2002. Together, they succeed in projecting their queries on their characters, about how far one’s faith can stand in the face of tragedy, using 2 narratives; the first narrative follows the actual events of the novel by Shusaku Endo – which the movie is based on – through the eyes of the main characters and the Japanese people, and the second is the inner thoughts and questions of the protagonist, Rodrigues, represented in the letters he kept sending to Father Valignano, signifying the changes and struggles this character faces.

These two narratives were used through the 3 stages of the movie to narrate the story. The first stage was more about showing the disastrous conditions there, starting from the early seconds of the movie, in the opening scene with father Ferreira, and continues with the young priests as they reach Japan, afraid of what they’d heard but not yet witnessed, careful in their movements and transactions with the Japanese, vision unclear. This stage also clarifies the two types of Japanese Christians who were there at that time: the faithful, who are willing to bear the risk of having such pure beliefs in an impure time, and those who had no choice but to favour their lives, compelled to deny their religion to be able to live in this exceptional era of racism and hatred.

Scorsese’s screenplay graphically displayed violence and mental and physical torture; burning alive, boiling water showers, inverted hanging for hours, and being held on crosses in the middle high of sea waves were the director’s R-Rated ways to relay how the masses were killed during that era. Even those who denied their beliefs had to live with unforgettable shame as they were asked to step on, and sometimes spit, on Jesus’s and virgin Mary’s symbols. Wrapping the first hour of the movie, the second stage starts with the separation of Rodrigues and Garupe, focusing on Rodrigues; his questions and doubts, along with his psychological pain that arises clearer and louder than the first stage. And finally after 2 hours of disappearing since the opening scene, Father Ferreira reappears, initiating the third and last stage of the movie, where the long-awaited meeting between the master and student happens with suffering standing against pride, and faith reaching its lowest levels.

Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues

Continuing what he started in his exceptional year was Andrew Garfield, with his solid performance playing the young religious priest Rodirgues, shows all critics that he really has got what it takes to be a great actor. His abilities aren’t restricted to playing Peter Parker who flies across the city’s buildings wearing his spider suit. Garfield, after another great role in Hacksaw Ridge, reappears in the religious character for the second time in 2016; one that fights and struggles, internally and externally in his environment because of his thoughts. This time, after 1 hour of discreet expressions and relative calmness hiding few questions beneath it, Garfield completely breaks this silence in the second stage. Clearly personifying his character’s confused state and agony unlike stage one; more Logical questions are asked to God, more self-blaming for asking such questions. And with his mission becoming more unclear as the crisis deepens, the young priest gets the knockout punch that executes what’s left of his so-called balance. Feeling of loss, disturbance, and struggle dominate the screen, along with the English actor, that the audience ends up asking the same questions and mirrors him in losing direction. In the movie’s last stage, you could feel Rodrigues’ tears upon your cheek. You could hear his screams as if they were yours and his pain will fill your heart with pity for him and for those who have lived through this ordeal, pity for the dead, pity for those who witnessed these horrifying acts.

Credit goes to Andrew Garfield for playing this hard physiological role in a flawless way that would force you to bow to his efforts and rising talent. Even if you have some negative thoughts about the movie, surely they won’t be regarding Garfield who, by delivering one of the best performances of his career, was the best thing in the nearly 3 hour-movie.

Adam Driver as Garupe

It’s known that Scorsese prefers to work with new rising talents, every once in a while, so that they aren’t rising anymore and Silence was no exception; giving not only the leading role to Andrew Garfield, but also the supporting role to Adam Driver. Both weren’t yet known for any major role for Scorsese to recommend them in this movie, and the old director was right, like every other time. Adam Driver who was known for starring in Star Wars: The Force Awakens back in 2015, will be known in the future for acting in this motion picture, that had nothing to do with stars or spaceships or Jedis, albeit a war movie, but of a totally different kind. In all his scenes, he was the opposite of Garfield’ character; he was frustrated and panicky while the other was patient, he vocalised his fears while his companion was silently cautions of the dangers surrounding them. To balance the wisdom of Rodrigues, which shined during the first stage of the movie, Garupe’s spontaneous actions were needed to reflect the effect of the massacres on human emotions of one of our characters, and just like his movie partner, he succeeds in his mission. Through that stage, you may find Rodrigues’ equilibrium a little bit odd, so your attention will be switched to Garupe, the man who you’ll find more relatable, considering the circumstances. In time, His own doubts will start arising, launching his journey with inner torment, feeding on the fear of the dangers that await them at every corner in a strange and inhospitable country. Driver was natural about performing the natural character who simply just wanted to find his mentor and save his coreligionist in a far land, but was severely affected by what he witnessed there. Adam Driver, one for the future.

Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira

Contrary to what you may have known him for, weak helpless Liam Neeson in Silence is the complete opposite of him back in the Taken days. Now, the taken Neeson, portraying abducted Father Ferreira, has nothing to do but to surrender to his fate and cope with the situation, with no guns or stunts to free himself or his daughter. In his few minutes on the screen, his appearance provides the last link in Scorsese’s artistic piece of inner conflict regarding faith. His moments with Garfield in the last part of the movie were the greatest in the entire film, where he expertly delivers the expressions and acts of his convinced adaptation. But with smaller details, you will notice that the ‘adaptation’ part isn’t what it may seem. The 55-year-old British actor secretly showed us that your beliefs and the way you see your creator is up to you, even if you had to deny them in public to save yourself and save others. Drowned in years of pain, his ambiguity continues, clarifying the movie’s objective; faith is about more than just apparent acts, it’s hidden so deep in our hearts that it transcends regrets and powerless justifications. Your personal, unspoken-of relationship with God will live within you till your last moments on this earth. Completing the great job done by his fellow actors, Neeson returns back to great roles after years of mediocre movies that didn’t fit his massive acting abilities, and what a comeback that was!

Martin Scorsese & Andrew Garfield on set

Since his last movie The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, Scorsese’s pouch lacked a big work-in-progress project, till producers finally agreed to produce his 28-year old script, announcing the return of the mighty director to the scene. It was clear from the trailer that this movie would be different than typical Scorsese films that were mostly about crimes and gangsters. In his third religion-themed movie, Scorsese kept his habit of giving us beautiful shots over the movie. We were able to see a couple of great scenes of seas and mountains that the characters were surrounded by while traveling and hiding. Also, the visual experience was emitting feelings of melancholy and gloom, and it’s visible in most of the scenes that were foggy and blue-hued as the characters’ destiny became more and more unclear. Unlike most of Scorsese’s pictures that were ruled by dialogue and music, Silence was silent. Music was absent and words were few, compared to his previous movies, giving more space for the audience to think and live the experience.

Some of Scorsese’s beautiful shots

Apart from directing, Scorsese’s screenplay suffered from elongation in the second stage of the movie. The rhythm was very low, losing the audience at the second hour. The need for this second stage to live more with Rodrigues was important, but the way it was introduced was a bit poor and unusual for Scorsese’s features, which were the best at catching the audience’s attention in its grip from the opening credits till the end. There were also some fatal on-screen mistakes such as this scene where the Japanese character is supposed to be tied and pulled by the authorities, as an example to spread fear in his town, and when they untie him we see that the knot was barely tied and that the rope was just loose. A small detail, but great movies are made of likely small details, and mistakes coming from Scorsese who always paid attention to such matters, was a big disappointment.

The knot fail scene

Silence is a beautiful and painful adventure through dark eras and ages of plain injustice, making you feel how absurd it is to fight someone because of your differing beliefs. They are just thoughts at the end of the day, so why all the hate? Each one of us decided to believe in something without physical proof, so why shed blood over some varying theories? And if, in those times, they had the excuse of being poorly educated and not as enlightened as we may be now, what’s our excuse for all the ethnic and religious wars we’ve committed? What on earth can justify religious and ethnic mass executions happening in the 21st Century!? 

If it wasn't for those 'boring' minutes in chapter 2 and the fatal on-screen failures, Silence would have been an epic masterpiece, and one of Scorsese’s best. Nevertheless, it’s still one of the best movies in 2016 for the incredible performances and the questions it asks and the experience as whole.