A black screen opens Silence. Staring into the darkness, a chorus of insects gets progressively louder until one’s hearing is consumed by nature. Scorsese then cuts to the film’s title and it works like an insecticide to hush the creepy-crawlies. Scorsese’s new film is a dialogue heavy, 161-minute epic about faith and the search for God in the tradition of Catholicism, but there’s a lesson up top: listen.
Silence, based on the novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, follows two 17th century Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel from Portugal to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson) who went missing while trying to convert the locals to their church.
While Scorsese’s artistry as a filmmaker is on show in Silence, assisted by the stunning cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, it often feels like a great film being talked over. There are lengthy conversations about the nature of faith and Scorsese indulges in his use of voiceover, once again, in the form of Garfield’s character reading letters home as a form of narration. It often feels excessive when the visuals and unspoken performances are doing an amazing job of telling the story, but that’s the point.
As the priests travel to remote parts of Japan there’s a beautiful tranquillity to a place relatively untouched by people. In scenes where the priests travel by boat and arrive on beaches, the roar of the waves is what greets them first. As they move from water to land, the jungle becomes all consuming with local fauna blaring. The priests, in their encounters with the Japanese locals, spend hefty amounts of time reflecting of the existence of God, which increases in intensity when the feudal military dictatorship of Japan, the Shogunate, begin hunting down Catholics because the religion is outlawed.
Scorsese brings into question the reliance on religious totems as a way of showing one’s faith. One of the priests says: “I worry, they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how can we deny them?” The Shogunate want Catholics to renounce their faith by stepping on tablets depicting images of God. Scorsese creates tension in each scene where the faithful’s destiny hinges on one step. In these muddy villages, it’s miraculous no dirt ever sticks to these religious images. If dirt doesn’t stick, how can a god be vengeful for such an act? There’s an emphasis on how mankind bends nature to represent something holy; religious tablets are carved from stone, wood from trees is whittled into crucifixes; yet people ignore the presence of a higher power around at all times in the natural world. No matter what you believe in, there is a biological force in living things proving our existence is miraculous. If you pull back from Earth into the ever-expanding universe it becomes astounding.
"Nature is ever present in Scorsese’s soundscape, like it’s waving a red flag at these priests to look beyond the institutional ways of showing one’s love for a higher power."
All the discussions in Silence lead to the crisis of faith central to the film as the priests begin to question the presence of God, who is eternally terrible at returning calls. Garfield’s character feels the hopelessness when he says, “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?” Silence shows how the quest to show one’s faith can lead to ignoring the presence of a god. Nature is ever present in Scorsese’s soundscape like it’s waving a red flag at these priests to look beyond the institutional ways of showing one’s love for a higher power. Even the Catholic sacrament of baptism uses water to symbolise purification of new members to the church. Water is the universal solvent and 65 per cent of the human body is made up of it. A bubbling creek is a more justified place of worship than an ornate man-made cathedral.
In a harrowing scene of torture, a group of Catholics are strung up in a bay while the ocean’s tide rolls in. Over three days they are reclaimed by nature, no miracle is coming, they’re already in the palm of their creator, at the wrath of another grotesque creation: man. During these sequences, Scorsese makes the sound of the ocean dominate and there’s something haunting about the way the waves keep coming, and they’ll continue crashing long after we’re all gone.
Life goes on regardless of what someone’s religious stance may be, and Scorsese shows the folly of mankind to dare talk over creation. You’ve gotta have faith, but more importantly, pay attention to what sits between prayer and silence.
Follow Cameron Williams on Twitter @MrCamW.