By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
For any film tackling a religious theme, its fulcrum arguably would be the ability of the story to inspire. In the hands of a cinematic master the caliber of Martin Scorsese, it’s easy to expect a meaningful and satisfying experience.
Unfortunately, “Silence,” now playing widely, fails to inspire, fails to live up to its director’s legacy, and perhaps worst of all, fails to consistently hold interest. At more than two hours and 40 minutes, it’s long in all the wrong places, misses the mark when it tries to summon drama, and at times, becomes laughable.
Based on Shusaku Endo’s widely praised 1966 novel, this is a film that has been a pet project for Scorsese for some three decades. He first announced plans for a feature in 2007, and after years of securing funding, along with myriad cast changes – Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio del Toro and Ken Watanabe were all said to be involved at one point or another – his adaptation has finally arrived in theaters.
The plot is centered mostly in the mind of 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit missionary Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who along with fellow priest Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), sets out to find a revered missionary (Liam Neeson) from their sect. He has disappeared in Japan, and the pair are out to dispel rumors that he has apostatized – that he has renounced his faith.
Upon their arrival, the priests are immediately in danger. The shogunate of this era has outlawed any outside religion, and the Christians of the small villages where Rodrigues and Garrpe take refuge to practice their faith in cloaked secrecy.
Anyone found to be – moreover, suspected to be – involved with Christianity is given a choice: renounce all ties to the faith or face the mortal consequences. Once the local inquisitor learns that two Jesuit priests are in the area, he begins a ruthless campaign to punish the peasants in order to force the clergymen to apostatize.
Once the groundwork is set, the film embarks on a seemingly endless cycle of capture, ultimatum and execution. Rodrigues repeatedly witnesses the graphic persecution of the helpless, as he wrestles with the strength of his own conviction.
Another point that seems overly simplistic is the method by which Christians are compelled to show their renunciation. By stepping a muddy foot onto a crudely-carved ingot of the Virgin Mary, they are generally considered to have apostatized. This is repeated throughout “Silence,” but as depicted and repeated, its impact fails to rise the level of mortal sin.
In one scene of climaxing drama, Rodrigues watches as his own reflection in a mountain stream dissolves into a cartoonish face of Jesus. Oh, brother.
On the bright side, “Silence” shines whenever the grand inquisitor Inoue, played by an inspired Issey Ogata, appears on screen. He is learned yet sinister, a brand of nemesis as potent as Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in “Die Hard.”
Perhaps unintended, “Silence” also devolves into pitting European Christianity against Japanese society.
While Rodrigues is patient, pious and devout, the Japanese are depicted as either unenlightened masses or bloodthirsty savages, and through the very last shot of the film, the implication is that the Western interpretation of the word of God is the one and only truth.
Moreover, this is yet another film set in Asia for which all top billing goes to white actors.
Any work that delves into the experience of faith benefits from leading audiences to feel an otherworldly touch, but “Silence” is so earthbound in its vulgar humanity, there is little room for transcendence.