Martin Scorsese’s Silence opens on a hazy tableau of suffering. The setting is 17th century Japan, during the nation’s brutal persecution of Christians. We watch Christians, outcasts in their own country, tied to makeshift crucifixes and ladled with scalding water from hot springs. We watch with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who falls to his knees at the suffering of his disciples.
This all unfolds without context. But even without knowledge of the events surrounding this misery, we’re conditioned to read it as meaningful. These people, we suspect, are enduring agony in service of something greater. As the film proceeds, we follow a pair of Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), as they secretly make their way into Japan to search for word of Ferreira. We’re witness to a litany of woe — torture and imprisonment and execution — inflicted upon people only guilty of worshipping the wrong God.
If this doesn’t sound like especially entertaining viewing, you’re not wrong. It’s hard to see Silence replicating the commercial success of Scorsese’s last feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, which attracted audiences with the promise of drug-drenched debauchery, comedic setpieces and Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s reflected in Silence’s modest box office taking in the States. Though I can’t imagine Scorsese — who’s been trying to make this film, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, for decades — particularly cares.
While Silence isn’t anywhere near as fun a night out at the movies as the auteur’s last picture, it does at least share a fondness for fucking with its audience. Just as Wolf aggressively interrogated the audience’s identification with DiCaprio’s charming yet despicable über-capitalist, Silence subtly subverts the insidious narrative of meaningful misery that’s so ubiquitous in Western (and Christian) culture.