A monumental story of persecuted faith and colonial conflict.The history of humanity is also the story of violence between conflicting belief systems. The worst of it has always existed along the thin dividing lines that separate the religions of the world. These are perhaps the biggest themes that film can portray, overarching the primal emotions of love, hate, and fear. This is the grand stage on which Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) plays out an historical drama of epic proportions. It is a political treatise on the nature of faith viewed through a post-colonial lens that explores how one belief system sought to impose itself upon another.
As complex as its themes are, the film’s plotline is simple. Set in 17th century, two Jesuit priests journey from Portugal to Japan in search of their monastery leader who has reportedly renounced his faith. It was a time when every vestige of Christianity was brutally suppressed by Japanese rulers through extensive public renunciations, torture, and executions. The Jesuits find villages of underground Christians who welcome the priests as messiahs. They administer sacred rites and preach to the faithful who believe the path is restored to the kingdom of heaven. The authorities hear of the Christian resurgence but even torture and killings will not force the villagers to betray the priests. They are finally captured and their choice is to renounce their faith or be forced to watch more killings.
Up to this point in the story it is a sweeping narrative of bold adventurism, religious persecution, and richly detailed contrasts between Christian and Oriental cultures. Two hours into the story, the film turns into a psychological thriller when the surviving Jesuit comes face-to-face with the renounced mentor he once revered. The dialogue of this meeting is some of the most existentially challenging commentary upon the nature of faith you will find on film. In portraying the immense chasm between apostate and disciple, the film explores the arrogance of religious colonialism; the interplay of personal ego, faith and self-sacrifice; and the incompatibility of two culturally divergent belief systems. The final chapter of the film provides the narrative space in which the Jesuit must confront his god and himself.
By its nature, this is a polarising film. It is criss-crossed with political and religious dogma and the history of colonial conquest. It is rich in Christian metaphor, with several scenes evoking the Passions of Christ, the Crucifixion, and the nature of sin and salvation. Some audiences will view it through the lens of their own religious beliefs, but most will recognise this as a monumental Scorsese work. At two hours and forty minutes it requires investment and some will find the pace uneven. Even here, metaphors are at work as the compression and de-compression of time mimics the tides of religious history. As similar stories could be told in different lands, some might find the portrait of cruelty in Japanese history one-sided. But there is no doubting that this is masterful storytelling with a fine cast and stunning cinematography that offers provocative insights into the nature of faith.