How do you know you’re doing the right thing and not just satisfying your own ego? How do you remain good in a world that only offers you terrible choices? How can God remain silent in the face of suffering? In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, viewers are forced to contend with these types of existential quandaries that have troubled humanity since the earliest days of civilization. It’s a weighty movie that asks difficult questions. It’s leaves viewers squirming both physically and spiritually. Of course, gravity and discomfort don’t necessarily make for a great movie. Sometimes the ambition of such a movie can sink it into a morass of pretension and pomposity. This is not the case with Silence. Instead the film feels like the honest efforts of a master artist reflecting on his life and wondering what it all means. The result is a meditation on the nature of the world which never flinches in the face of uncomfortable questions.

Silence, based on the celebrated novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, follows the mission of two young Jesuits, Father Rodrigues [Andrew Garfield] and Father Garupe [Adam Driver]. The pair smuggle themselves into feudal Japan to find word of their former teacher, Father Ferreira [Liam Neeson], who is rumored to have renounced his faith. The film takes place on the backdrop of 17th century Japan, where Christians were persecuted and Westerners were only permitted to remain in the country under strict supervision. In this unforgiving environment, the young priests’ faith is challenged as they watch the religion that they preach resulting unimaginable torments for its innocent followers.

The film opens with Father Ferreira being forced to witness the torture of fellow Christians on a hellish landscape. From this moment, it’s clear that Silence will be a heavy movie. In fact, across its 161-minute runtime, it never lets up. Throughout the film, we’re asked to watch the brutal destruction of Christianity in Japan through the maiming and slaughter of Christians. We’re asked to bear witness to the destruction of a man’s ego and his faith as he knows it.

From this description, one might be tempted to compare this film to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which uses unrelenting violence and despair to drive home a point about faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. While a movie like The Passion of the Christ uses suffering to affirm a specific faith, Silence uses it as a canvas to explore the human condition through the lens of faith. It is about a particular group of people in a specific moment in history, but it explores broader universal themes. I shuffled out of this movie wondering how I ought to live with all the senseless suffering in the world. The film offered no answer. I have to imagine that other viewers left the theater feeling the same way. Silence effectively places these questions within the movie by combining rigorous intellectual exploration of its topics with an effective emotional core. This balance results in a film that feels both nuanced in its thought and urgent in its message.  

The greatest responsibility for this delicate balancing act falls upon the actors. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver put in affecting performances which reflect the conflicted thoughts and emotions accompanying a crisis of faith. Driver, in particular, performs his role with a quiet intensity that carries every scene. Just as important, though, is the supporting cast which bears the brunt of the responsibility in making the emotional dilemmas posed by the film feel significant. Issei Ogata, as the inquisitor, plays an effective foil for Father Rodrigues’s righteous faith. Yosuke Kubozuka puts in a simultaneously creepy and affecting performance as the apostate Kichijiro. Perhaps most important are the many actors who portray the Japanese villagers. Their combined effect generates the underlying sense of desperation and suffering on which the entire film rests.

Beyond the performances, the film stands out for its dedication to faithfully recreating it’s setting. One gets the sense that a great deal of effort has been expended on making the film feel authentic. The movie is brimming with period details from the poverty stricken rural villages to the metropolis of Nagasaki. In addition, Scorsese’s commitment to using Japanese actors to play roles is admirable. Their use of the local accents further increases the sense of the film’s authenticity and specificity. This attention to detail coupled with Scorsese’s relatively still camera and Rodrigo Pierto’s beautiful cinematography creates a real sense of time and place that’s often lacking in period movies.

If the film has one major weakness, it’s the structure of the screenplay itself. Both the opening and closing acts feel rushed. Voice-over is used extensively in these sections to impart viewers with large chunks of plot. While these sections help the film reach its final destination, they feel out of rhythm with the rest of the film. Nearing a three-hour runtime, it’s no surprise that this film resorts to taking shortcuts. Still, one has to wonder whether this plot could have been structured more effectively.

Despite its flaws, Silence is an important viewing experience and a solid entry in Scorsese’s filmography. It’s rare that a film balances deep intellectual exploration with a meaningful human story. The film’s subject matter is difficult, but this balance ensures that it’s never overbearing. Instead, its persistent questioning reveals new vistas of human experience. Silence isn’t an easy watch, but it’s an important one for anyone who has ever felt paralyzed in the face of the suffering in the world. Rather than offering simplistic explanations, it describes the moral complexities of real life. Through its challenging exploration, it affirms the richness of human existence.