Monday, February 6, 2017

A Test of Faith

Faith is a virtue that can help us get through some difficult times in our lives. But what happens when our faith seems to come up short in a critical situation? Do we abandon this doctrine or do we maintain our fundamental beliefs?

That is one of the principal questions asked in Martin Scorsese's latest film Silence. Based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, the film covers the journey of two Jesuit priests in the 17th century that travel to Japan to find Father Cristovao Ferreira, a fellow Jesuit who wrote a letter detailing the tortures that local Catholics had to endure in Japan, where Buddhism was the only religion that was allowed at that time. The two priests, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are emphatic with their elder Jesuit that they need to find Ferreira, who has disappeared and is rumored to have renounced God. Despite the elder's warning that this journey would be meaningless as well as dangerous, Rodrigues and Garupe know in their hearts that they must undertake this mission, as their Jesuit beliefs tell them they cannot abandon one of their own.

Scorsese has reportedly been trying to make this film ever since the novel was released; the wait was certainly worth it, as he has made one of his finest and most personal films. Much of the story deals with Father Rodrigues, who is captured and must witness the torture of local Catholics who look to him for spiritual enlightenment. His captors are unwilling to bend as far as allowing Catholicism to endure, but they are intelligent people that cater to the priest's will. They do not mean to harm him, he is told, but unless his followers renounce their Catholic beliefs, they will be tortured and in some cases, put to death.

This message holds the principal meaning in the film. Rodrigues is driven by the fact that his Jesuit education tells him to stay strong at all times, even in the face of unspeakable horrors. Yet, he is told repeatedly that his faith - in this case, his silence when asked to influence local Catholics - is the root of the problem. If he stubbornly refuses to change his beliefs, then that behavior will mean death for others. Is his devotion to God worth all the suffering that will take place?

Scorsese treats this story with intelligence and subtlety, both in the screenplay that he adapted along with longtime collaborator Jay Cocks, as well as in his direction. His work here is extremely fluid, a departure from some of more innovative camera tricks (such as the signature tracking shots as in Raging Bull and Goodfellas) he has employed in the past. In Silence, Scorsese take a more relaxed approach to telling his story; as he features numerous panoramic images that highlight both the beauty of the seaside as well as the foreboding nature of the jungle. In this regard, he is immeasurably aided by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who delivers a palette of cool blues and greens, along with deep browns. Prieto, who worked with Scorsese on his last film The Wolf of Wall Street, and has also been director of photography on such films as Argo, Babel and Brokeback Mountain, is one of the most talented directors of photography working today, and his compositions here are often breathtaking in their beauty, while some shots are heartbreaking in their impact.

At two hours and forty minutes, some will find this film to be overly long; I did not have that problem. The question of Catholic guilt, especially presented in this light, is a complex and troubling one, and cannot be treated on a surface level. Andrew Garfield's performance is first-rate, as he gives us a man that is obsessed and outraged, yet one who must keep his feelings to himself at critical times (we hear his thoughts in voice over narration at several moments in the film). His appearance, especially later in the film, when he has grown a full beard, is Christlike; Garfield embraces this and answers his enemies in a restrained, religious fashion. Together with his Oscar-nominated performance earlier this year in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield has become a leading contemporary actor; it's nice to see his star on the rise.

There is a marvelous moment in Silence that delivers a significant message in a beautifully elegant, visual manner. Rodrigues is on his knees, drinking water from a local spring, when he sees his reflection; suddenly his face is transformed into that of Jesus and then back again to his own appearance. Just then, the face of one of his captors appears in the water next to his; all of this takes place in a matter of a few seconds. These images seem to connect Rodrigues with both God and his enemies; perhaps in their worship of a higher being, the priest and his conqueror are not so different after all.

Silence is a superb film, the work of an accomplished filmmaker that wants us to examine our beliefs, while presenting a story with a timeless message - are our convictions unshakeable? Can we look beyond our own creed to help others?