Liam Neeson is the white whale of Scorsese's monumental 26-year passion project, which caps a career-long study of spirituality on the big screen
Religious symbolism has always been central to the work of Martin Scorsese. From Boxcar Bertha to Dalai Lama biopic Kundun, with Mean Streets, Cape Fear and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ in between, Scorsese, the one-time seminarian, has never shirked from matters spiritual.
The result of the director’s efforts is, as one might expect, a monumental, courageous historical epic, as powerful as it is arduous. Silence simply cannot be ignored.
The chronicle of their quest is an astonishing one. Scorsese weaves a tapestry of tribulation and torment, plunging his idealistic padres into an unforgiving landscape, one that immediately tests their learning and adherence to the power of the almighty.
Scorsese does not linger in bringing it to the fore. His opening scene features Neeson (the white whale of the piece’s 161-minute running time), broken and detained, witnessing a band of fellow missionaries undergoing one of the shogunate’s many inventive methods of torture — subtlety is no obstacle.
Indeed the trials of Rodrigues and Garrpe seem just as intense. Landing under the cover of night, they immediately begin ministering to the Christians who greet them. Forced to cower behind closed doors and conceal their practices from all but a few, these haunted natives receive their European visitors as saviours, a reality that, at first fulfils the young priests, only to turn sour when the local inquisitor, enacting the nation-wide pogrom against the ‘Kirishitans’, sniffs out this evangelising.
More unsettling is the frigid calculation behind these cruelties. The authorities do not seek to terrify, rather they wish to humiliate and degrade, using the tenet of sacrifice against the very people who so willingly espouse it. Later on, Tadanobu Asano’s urbane translator squirrels inside Rodrigues’s mind, questioning the sense of his beliefs with calm efficiency. This is no story of Christendom’s triumph over the distant unbelievers. The opposite is underlined more than once: while the Japanese readily grasp Christianity’s precepts, they’re simply not interested in embracing them.
As a work of artistic endeavour, the film ably succeeds. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto conjures more than one arresting image, be it a floating overhead view of the priests’ sea vessel, the Messiah’s visage in a reflecting pool or the mist-shrouded verdancy of rural Japan.
Further reading: Where does Silence rank among Liam Neeson's Five Best and Worst Movies?