'Silence' Asks, And Tries To Answer: What Would Jesus Do?

Scorsese's sprawling, stunning, often violent epic forces us to grapple with our own religious doubts and uncertainties

Martin Scorsese's Silence, a ritualistically violent drama about the extinction of Catholicism in feudal Japan, is a film about faith that works like a mirror. It's 1640 and the Tokugawa shogunate has executed 6,000 Christian villagers, mostly in tortures involving tatami mats. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), the last Portuguese padre in the country, wonders if his church has imported eternal life or certain death. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) tells Rodrigues he can save these converts if he denounces God — there's more power in publicly disgracing a priest than murdering a bunch of nameless nobodies. What would Jesus do? Rodrigues prays for guidance and gets no answer. In his struggle, we see our own religious doubts and certainties reflected back. He must decide for himself, and Silence lets us decide, too, if the miserable Rodrigues is a saint or a fool.

As a kid, Scorsese wanted to be a priest. But he does his best to keep his own feelings off the screen. While other directors — say, Mel Gibson — would linger on a beheading, zooming in on the doomed man's face in those agonizing seconds before the sword falls, Scorsese slices his neck in the background. He allows himself one quick blood geyser — a blast of unreal gore from the samurai films he loves — and then the corpse is unceremoniously dragged off. He doesn't glorify the Christians' martyrdom, and he doesn't even hate their killers. He makes death as blunt and dull and useless as a snapped pencil. The point is that there is no point.

Silence wrestles with questions that've butchered millions of believers and non-believers in the last two millennia: Is there a god, and if so, does he appreciate bloodshed? Garfield whispers his answers, like a boy worried his father might overhear. His Rodrigues is naive and quivering — a human, not a badass hero — and he doubts his mission within minutes of landing in Japan. What's the point of hearing confessions in a language he doesn't understand? What's the point of disappointing a desperate mother by explaining that, technically, her baptized baby won't be in paradise — or paradaisu — until it dies? What's the point of his parishioners getting themselves killed by refusing to step on an icon of Jesus, the Inquisitor's dreaded Trample Test? Step, and they've denied their Lord. Don't step, and they're dead.

Rodrigues says it's OK to step — after all, Jesus forgives. His partner, Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), says it's not. Instead, the doomed Christians "must pray for courage," words as empty in 1640 as they are today after a mass shooting. Both Garfield and Driver look like icons of Jesus themselves: high cheekbones, narrow jaws, and big, dark eyes. Rodrigues even sees Jesus when he stares at himself in a river, painted in a style that makes him look almost alien, which makes sense, as he, too, is an alien in this strange country. And, compared to our quick glimpse of clean, white, cold marble Lisbon, Scorsese's misty and overgrown Japan looks like a whole other planet.

I wish Garfield and Driver had switched parts. Scorsese and Jay Cocks's script pairs better with Driver's distancing chill. Garfield can't quite pull off Rodrigues's cockiness. It's impossible to look at his soft, fawn-like face and not want to protect him from harm — he looks like someone who always needs a hug, when the role requires someone who might deserve to get slapped in the face. And since he and Driver can't blend, they spend the first third of the film hiding like animals in caves and cellars until the brave townspeople tell them it's safe to come out and preach. They keep hiding when the starving villagers face life-or-death tests. "They live like beasts and die like beasts," sighs Rodrigues. But he's the one crouching in a bush. And when he's captured early on, along with a half-dozen locals, Rodrigues panics. "Why are you so calm?!" he bleats. "We are all about to die!" They look peaceful, as though heaven must be better than this. After all, it's priests like him who taught them that.

Scorsese doesn't explain why the Japanese hate Christians, which lets people assume that Buddhists, known for their devotion to non-violence, were as persecutorial as, well, Catholics, who, back in Lisbon, were still busily burning Jews and witches at the stake. (Not that Scorsese mentions that, either, but anyone who knows even the slightest bit of history can't help comparing the tortures Rodrigues condemns abroad with the ones he'd support at home.) In part, it's a battle of Inquisition versus Inquisition. The Japanese had heard of the pain Christianity had unleashed in Europe. Even closer to Japan, the Portuguese Catholics who'd colonized Goa banned Hinduism, destroyed temples, and forbade the Indian to say "namaste." And their ships were spreading their religion — and their dominance — to Brazil, Macau, Uruguay, Angola, Guinea, and Mozambique. Religion was politics, as it is now.

Ordinarily, I'd accuse Scorsese of stacking the deck. Why wouldn't he tell audiences the full story behind Japan's brutal purge? But Scorsese keeps Rodrigues ignorant, too. When he's captured by the Japanese leaders, all wizened men two and three times his age, they realize that this crusader is a dummy. "We do have a better grasp of your language than you have of ours," snips his interpreter, not hiding his condescension. They've studied his tongue and his church, and concluded that they don't see the need for new ideas like Hell. But Rodrigues is so arrogant in his own beliefs that he hasn't extended them the same courtesy. He has simply written off Buddhism as wrong, dividing the world into Catholics and savages. "Only a Christian would see Buddha simply as man," sighs the interpreter. "You are ignorant, padre."

The more Rodrigues shuts his ears to talk over them, the more rude and insolent he sounds. (Although I can imagine someone watching the same scene and thinking him brave.) "We have brought you the truth!" he shouts, Garfield delivering the line with volume and conviction and zero evidence, the equivalent of an all-caps "BELIEVE ME!" Rodrigues wants his Japanese captors to make him a martyr — there's honor in dying. But they refuse to even let him face off against a proper villain, a cruel tyrant like King Herod or Emperor Nero. Instead, the Inquisitor Inoue (Ogata) who controls Rodrigues's fate is charming and reasonable and exasperated by the priest's stubbornness. Inoue's almost too goofy for the movie — he sticks out his ass when he walks and has the slithering accent of a cartoon snake. He makes Rodrigues seem like a bore who's crashed his cocktail party. Finally, after Rodrigues gives a passionate speech that sounds like it should end in violins and applause, Inoue and the elders giggle and walk away. This moron isn't worth their time.

Whether Silence is worth its daunting 161-minute running time depends on what truths you bring to it. It's possible to watch Silence and see a story about saints martyred by an oppressive government. It's also possible to see a told-you-so parable about imperialists who should have stayed home. I suspect Scorsese would be a little disappointed by either conclusion. But he stays quiet because he wants to challenge the audience to go deeper inside themselves, to separate our own religion (or lack of one) from the faith that guided us to it. No matter what you believe, we've all drawn our conclusion from the same evidence — which is to say, there hasn't been any. And maybe that's enough, just like it has to be for Rodrigues, who spends the film praying to a Jesus who doesn't answer, and then simply listens to his own conscience and makes the best decision he can.

Even the Bible knew better than to base its stories on men who did everything right. There's more drama — and more power — in learning from people's mistakes. I left Silence thinking not of poor, sad-eyed Rodrigues, but of the one character he loathed: the traitorous Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a self-preserving wretch who sold out his friends for cash and his family to save his own life. Kubozuka is the bad boy of Japan, a talented young actor who smashed up his own career by talking about getting stoned on Japanese TV, in a country where one joint can get you five years in prison. (Think Shia LaBeouf if he had somehow also survived a mysterious fall from a nine-story balcony.) He has slowly earned Japan's forgiveness, which makes him perfect casting for a sinner who spends the whole movie pleading for absolution, and then immediately sinning again.

Kichijiro is almost comic relief — the fourth time he burst onto the screen begging to confess, my theater burst out laughing — but he's as moment-to-moment sincere as he is broken. He'd rather be alive than dead, and it's not his fault he's in an era in which he can't win. "Why was I born now?" he groans. "This is so unfair!" Yet the era needs him. Without sinners, why would the church even have to exist? In a time when people believe their souls might burn for stepping on an icon, Kichijiro's faith in absolution is as close as the movie gets to believing in anything big and beautiful. After all, both humans and gods have the power to forgive.