There are very few films that deal with the concepts of faith and even fewer that tackle religious faith. Modern audiences probably could care less about religious faith, and Hollywood cares even less than the audiences, given the short shrift the town affords religion. Though after Mel Gibson’s masochistic and extremely profitable The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood saw money in them thar’ hills and started to make treacly “miracles on earth” fare, serious engagement is rare.
The Apostle is one of the few films that actually explored the limits of faith and the working of religion in a modern context. It is a masterpiece. The Exorcist, another classic, is generally known as The Daddy of Shock Gore, but in fact, it is a deep and complicated story of hell on earth, and the perils of believing that such a hell doesn’t exist among us. Most recently, Calvary fit the bill. That’s about it.
Martin Scorsese has co-written and directed a fourth masterpiece, which has much in common with the prior three films. The Apostle gave us Robert Duvall as a fallen minister who has to rebuild from the ground up after having turned his back on his belief and his community. The Exorcist, while ostensibly about the demonic possession of a little girl, is really about a fallen and broken priest (Jason Miller) and his own test of faith. Similarly, Calvary offered Brendan Gleeson as a modern Irish priest living in his own Gethsemane, attempting to withstand the assault on faith by near every denizen of the town he serves.
Silence, which was almost entirely ignored by the the film community, centers on two 17th century Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who secret themselves to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson), rumored to have apostatized. As is their calling, when they arrive, they immediately begin to minister to and convert Japanese peasants, for which the punishment is severe and faith-shaking. Garfield wrestles with the consequences of his actions, and his discussions with the Japanese Inquisitor and his translator (Issei Ogata and Tadabanou Asano, respectively) are enlightening yet fraught with danger. They are trying to break Garfield, who convincingly plays as a man of his time, showing all of the anguish and compassion attendant to his situation. He is bedeviled even more by the appearance of his guide (Yosuke Kubozuka) who consistently betrays him and other Japanese Christians, only to ask for confession, an absolution Garfield finds increasingly difficult to give.
This a gorgeous, meditative film, and Scorsese eschews his hallmark of dizzying and inventive camera movement for a simpler, more staid approach. The effect is classic and contemplative. Garfield, who was nominated for the overpraised Hacksaw Ridge, is mesmerizing. One of the best from last year, and woefully overlooked (it received a nomination for best cinematography).