I saw the adverts for this film when I was in London in December 2016. Liam Neeson’s gloomy figure dominated the posters which described the film in glowing terms that certainly made me want to watch it.
But if you, like me, thought Neeson would play a big part in Silence you would be wrong. His character is integral to the plot and indeed forms the very reason for the action. But Neeson appears only briefly at the beginning and then at the very end of this two-hour-forty-minute film by Martin Scorsese. The main action revolves around the characters Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who gives an excellent performance), and Garupe (Adam Driver).
The story is set in 17th Century Japan. Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Catholic priest, had gone to Japan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then was rumoured to have apostasised. Rodrigues and Garupe do not believe this about their former mentor and set out for Japan to find him and prove the rumours false. What follows is a tale of extreme hardship and religious persecution.
When the pair arrive in Japan they are welcomed with open arms by the few Christians there, but are kept hidden for their, and the local Christians’ safety. Authorities get wind of their arrival, track them down and take them captive. From here the story follows Rodrigues, with Garupe featuring only on the periphery.
The Japanese authorities are shown in Silence as patient, clever, effective and cruel in their relentless efforts to persuade the Christians (priests and locals alike) to apostasise. For these authorities it was not simply a matter of getting Christians to conform outwardly. They wanted their hearts to change too. Manipulation, torture and killing all form part of their methods. And these methods create in their victims intense psychological conflict as they struggle not to betray the God of their faith. As the story progresses the audience begins to sympathise with the apostasisers (one slimy character apostasises and then seeks absolution several times).
In a haunting moment in the film, just as Rodrigues is about to give in, the voice of God speaks to Him. Without giving too much away, this moment, and the closing scenes of the film highlight what is portrayed as the ambivalent nature of apostasisation and how this act would not necessarily be the end for the Christian.
The title ‘Silence’ is meant to indicate God’s silence during these Christians’ struggles.
Silence is an intense, thought-provoking film, covering an era I knew very little about. It’s worth watching, but is long and may attract a limited audience only. It opens in cinemas in South Africa on 21 April 2017.
Read the history behind Silence here.