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Does God Speak amid Silence?

Does God Speak amid <i>Silence</i>?


No bit of Silence is an accident or an afterthought. This Martin Scorsese adaptation of a Japanese novel by Shûsaku Endô is difficult, slow and lacking in a traditionally satisfying resolution, but its strength as an adaptation and the powerful filmmaking and performances warrant 4 out of 5.

Want Another Take? Read Dr. James Emery White's Insights on Silence


In 17th-century Japan, Catholic Christianity is under attack, the faith outlawed and persecuted. When Jesuit missionary Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) goes missing after years of faithfully sending reports home to Portugal, two of his former students, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, fresh off Hacksaw Ridge) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), determine to covertly enter Japan and find word of him. What follows is a brutal exploration of faith and doubt, culture and colonialism, violence and religion as Rodrigues navigates the desperation of the Japanese villages, the suffering experienced by hostages, and the looming silence he finds in isolation and torture.

What Works?

As an adaptation, the film hits essentially every mark from the original novel, and as a film, it’s clear that a master director was at the helm. The mist-covered mountains, crashing waves and black beaches of Japan feel bleak and shrouded in mystery. The characters each have their own distinct fervor and emotional arc (most fascinating supporting character goes to the cowardly Kichijiro, portrayed superbly by Yôsuke Kubozuka). The most wrenching and thought-provoking moments and themes of the book are preserved and highlighted, such as the villagers' desperation for priestly services and tangible icons, and the various scenes of torture. All this is framed in a coherent narrative and cinematically striking shots, necessary for a movie of this length and complexity. Of special note is Garfield's performance as the film's central narrator. Garfield is still young, and prior to Hacksaw Ridge was most known for lighter fare like Spider-Man and The Social Network. His dedication to this weightier role is undeniable and he rises to the occasion in a big way (as does, similarly, Driver in his own supporting role).

Related Story: Andrew Garfied Encounters God While Studying for Role as Jesuit Priest

What Doesn't?

The film’s ending is in many ways emotionally unsatisfying in the same way the novel is: there's little traditional climax, the same crisis happens again and again, and a few key lines and sentiments are offered without enough earned weight. But that, many would argue, is a theme central to this story and something the audience is supposed to feel. The movie also relies very heavily on narration (it has at least three narrators). And while that structure is absolutely crucial to communicating the protagonist's struggle, and normally works fine, the constant "telling" does get a little wearisome in such a lengthy film.

Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes

Theologians, look no further: this movie is jam-packed with spiritual themes. The central issue at play is the question of faith and persecution. Does recanting verbally or making a symbolic physical action (e.g. stepping on a portrait of Christ) truly affect someone's salvation? If there is blessing in being a martyr, what does it mean to bring about the suffering and martyrdom of others who never wished to bear that burden? What does doubt mean for a believer? The Christians in the film are Jesuit Catholics, so physical objects such as icons, rosaries, and crucifixes play a large part both in comforting faith communities and as instruments of government torture and disdain. Truth is discussed and dissected, especially as it relates to differing cultural perspectives and beliefs. The problem of suffering is a major theme, with characters caught between the desire for peace and mercy in this life, and the promise of Paradise in the next. Finally, as the title suggests, the film asks us to consider what to do with divine silence. "Pray, but pray with your eyes open," suggests one character. "[God] is silent, but you don't have to be." Is it in times of silence that we grow closer to God? Or is silence an indicator of absence, as Rodrigues increasingly dreads?

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)

  • MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violent content 
  • Language/Profanity: A few instances of name calling (a group of people are commanded to call the Virgin Mary a “whore”).
  • Sexuality/Nudity: Men are seen in loincloth-type garments, but no exposed skin is shown in a sexual way.
  • Violence/Frightening/Intense: While not grotesquely graphic, the film still offers stark portrayals of violence and death. People are beheaded, scalded, drowned, burned, and hung upside down bleeding. The film is intense throughout as characters hide from officials and make dangerous journeys.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: A man is offered Sake in one scene, to mirror Christ being offered vinegar on the cross. A man is shown with a bottle and described as being a drunk.

The Bottom Line

RECOMMENDED FOR: Martin Scorsese fans. Those who enjoy reflective films and hard issues. Those who appreciate the intersection of strong filmmaking and theological questions. Those who need a good, if difficult, reminder of what real religious persecution actually looks like.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who need clear cut and/or happy endings. Those sensitive to violence. Folks who have trouble sitting through long, slow-moving films. Silence is being talked about in some circles as a 'Christian movie,' but just as with Hacksaw Ridge, its rating suggests it's not a family film, and the kind you'll want to investigate before seeing.

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, opens in limited theaters December 23, 2016 (wider January 6, 2017); available for home viewing March 28, 2017. It runs 161 minutes and stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, and Yoshi Oida. Watch the trailer for Silence here.

Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.

Publication date: December 24, 2016