Ever try telling a story to a little kid? Inevitably, there’s a plot point that doesn’t make sense to the child and they ask “Why did he do that?” Usually it starts out simple. “Because he’s the bad guy.” But that’s only a band-aid on a broken bone. “Why is he bad?” A little harder this time. “Because he wants all the gold for himself.” Phew. “Why would he want that?” The innocent questions soon plumb the depths of existentialism and threaten to keep digging until you finally pull the ace of cop-outs from the deck.
“But why did he do that?”
“Because he did.”
Silence is two hours of difficult, compelling questions with a last half hour that unnecessarily answers “Because he did.”
The movie follows two Jesuit priests on what could’ve just as easily turned into a buddy comedy as they set off for Japan to find their missing mentor. What makes it assuredly not a buddy comedy is the sadistic persecution facing Christians in Japan at the time. See, not only did their mentor go missing, but rumors have trickled back to their home church in Portugal that he renounced his faith entirely. His two proteges refuse to believe it and vow to prove he is still a devout man. He has to be.
That’s the first of many fissures of doubt that creep through Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as they set out into the heart of darkness. It’s that pervasive and piling doubt that gives Silence its captivating energy.
One of its biggest questions is the meaning of martyrs.
I am, for better or worse, the product of 13 years of Lutheran school. Lutherans are like Casual Friday Catholics, but ultimately on the same team. So I had to take classes like New Testament and Christian Ethics. One of the classrooms had a poster with a picture of a wolf on it and a reminder that martyrs are still made around the world today. That made me wonder.
Would God want his followers to stand firm against persecutors and die as symbols in his name or would he rather they lie about renouncing their faith and survive to further spread his word and do his work in secret?
The answer I got back then was to re-read the Ten Commandments and think before I ask something like that.
Silence says it’s an easy answer in the comfort of a church of like-minded individuals, but it’s something else entirely when you’re watching those martyrs burn in bamboo straitjackets.
Are missionaries working in hostile lands doing more harm than good when the converted are being rounded up and tortured in volcanic hot springs? Whose hands are stained with their blood? Are those that accept their fate truly greater than those who don’t?
Silence takes an unflinching look at all of these impossible questions, and does so in a wide enough manner to make it work as an exploration of faith in general as opposed to just Christianity.
Well it works that way for two hours, anyways.
Then a character shows up, tosses out all the aforementioned questions and turns the home stretch into something like a stilted history lesson about the rest of everyone’s lives until their inconsequential deaths. There are surprises, or supposed to be, in the closing minutes, but because that character showed up earlier, there’s no question as to how it all turns out.
Much has been made about Martin Scorsese taking 30 years to get this movie made, and how it all pays off on the screen. While Silence is a work of beautiful imagery, arresting performances and complicated themes, it seems pretty obvious why studios were hesitant to get their fingerprints on it. Without that last half hour, it would be an occasionally uneven but artful Scorsese award-winner. With that last half hour, it’s something else entirely.
I won’t give away just what splits the movie so fatally because it deserves to be seen for full effect, but the conclusion is still the same.
Silence is a difficult film until it isn’t. It will likely frustrate non-Christians and believers alike, the former for the last thirty minutes and the former for the first hundred-and-twenty. It makes the cardinal sin of believing its questions must be answered.
But the problem is that the questions can’t be, and only little kids can accept “Because he did.”