In 1633, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), witnesses the torture/death of 5 fellow missionaries. He’s helpless (in the presence of Japanese inquisitors) to assist them in any way. In 1640, at St. Paul’s College in Macau (China), an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), receives news that Ferreira renounced his faith (became an apostate) after being tortured. In disbelief, Ferreira’s young Portuguese pupils, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), set off to find him. Valignano explains that they “will be the last priests sent to Japan.” Rodrigues and Garupe find a guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobuzuka), an alcoholic fisherman who lost his family (after they failed to renounce Christianity). When they arrive in Japan, they witness first-hand the incredibly difficult lives of those who live as Christians (of course- in secret).
Rodrigues: I feel so tempted. I feel so tempted to despair. I’m afraid. The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing. Because you are not there.
The story is based on historical fact; while keeping the name of the hero’s mentor, author Shusaku Endo changed the nationality of the hero (an Italian named Giuseppe Cara) to Portuguese. Endo gave him the fictional name of Sebastian Rodrigo (translated as Sebastiao Rodrigues). Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks had written an early draft of the film in the 1990s w/ the intention of Scorsese directing it after Gangs of New York (2002). But when Scorsese couldn’t get financing, he decided instead to do The Aviator (2004). When the project was announced, Daniel Day-Lewis was set to play Ferreira, Gael García Bernal was set to play Rodrigues, and Benicio Del Toro was set to play Garupe. They dropped out of the project after MANY development delays.
Interpreter: But everyone knows a tree which flourishes in one kind of earth may decay and die in another. It is the same with the tree of Christianity. The leaves decay here. The buds die.
Garfield took a year off, grew out his head/facial hair, and studied w/ Father James Martin (who is now editor of The National Catholic Review). Garfield (who was raised w/ no religion) and Driver (who was raised in Baptist churches) spent a week at St. Beuno’s, a Jesuit retreat in Wales. They didn’t speak for a week, as that was the rule, so they could get a feel for the spirituality needed for the roles. The most noticeable change is the weight: Garfield lost 40 lbs. (down to 130 lbs), Driver lost 50 lbs (30 lbs. before filming and 20 lbs. during), and Neeson lost 20 lbs. Scorsese noted that there was a nutritionist on location w/ them, but I’m sure it was tough to subsist on such little food. I also learned that Ang Lee advised Scorsese on which locations to use while filming in Taiwan.
This film is quite impressive (esp. the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto); he worked on some great-looking movies, incl. Frida; Alexander; Brokeback Mountain; Lust, Caution; and State of Play. Silence was tough for me to relate to (until Neeson’s character appeared late in the 2nd act). I think I’ve been agnostic (or skeptical of all religions) since age 7. My family also comes from a faith tradition which does NOT include proselytizing (the act or process of converting or attempting to convert someone to a religion or other belief system).
I’ve watched Driver’s work in the past month; this was on the list (BUT I wasn’t excited to see it). I thought Driver did a great job (as usual); Garupe appears in the 1st hour, then we learn about his fate in the 2nd hour. Scorsese commented that he chose Driver b/c “he looks like he stepped out of a Flemish painting.” Driver said (in several interviews) that one of his “dreams” was to work w/ Scorsese; I’m sure this is true of many actors. At the Telluride Film Festival, the director called the actor “one of the best, if not THE best, of his generation.”
But for all the torments they inflict, the Japanese inquisitors are no generic movie villains. They truly believe that Christianity is incompatible with the Japanese spirit, an alien pathogen imported by arrogant and incurious Europeans. […]
…one of the chief weaknesses of Silence is that so many of the characters in orbit around Rodrigues convey more narrative gravity than he does himself: Asano’s translator, Ogata’s inquisitor, Kubozuka’s fickle Kichijiro, Driver’s Father Garupe, a village elder played by Yoshi Oida. Andrew Garfield is a fine actor, but his calling card has always been a kind of boyish ingenuousness, and here it is tested beyond its limits.
-Christopher Orr (The Atlantic)
In the lead roles, Garfield and Driver (respectively graduates of the Spider-Man and Star Wars franchises) bring mainstream appeal, although wobbly Portuguese accents threaten to undercut the solemnity of their English-language dialogue. With his angular features Driver catches the eye, but it is to Garfield’s leonine locks that Scorsese is drawn, the handsome face of Rodrigues evoking beatific images of Christ in whose likeness the padre presumes to style himself. No wonder he sees a vision of Jesus when gazing at his own reflection in a stream. As for Neeson, he played a Jesuit priest in The Mission, but his late-in-the-day reappearance here is more evocative of his turn as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace…
-Mark Kermode (The Guardian)
…one of the things that impressed me most about it was the care it devotes to understanding the position of the Japanese authorities. Without condoning their brutality, it lets a major character—Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata), one of the officials in charge of eradicating Christianity from Japan, and the supervisor of the hero’s suffering—explain the official point-of-view on Western religion. He doesn’t just consider it a corrupting influence on Japanese culture, he doubts that Christianity can truly take root in the “swamp” (his word) of his home country.
-Matt Zoller Seitz (rogertebert.com)
…judged in broadly cinematic terms, “Silence” is not a great movie, despite having been directed by one of the medium’s greatest masters at a point of great maturity… […]
Still, viewed through the narrow prism of films about faith, “Silence” is a remarkable achievement, tackling as it does a number of Big Questions in a medium that, owing to its commercial nature, so often shies away from Christianity altogether. […]
For non-believers in particular, when Neeson resurfaces, his arguments, intended as the cruelest temptation, will instead sound perfectly logical.
– Peter Debruge (Variety.com)
 All the acting is exceptional, helped by strong writing and sharply drawn characters. Andrew Garfield is subdued but still splendid, while Adam Driver is powerfully moody. Liam Neeson is on fearless form…
 I will talk about the major flaw I had with the picture and it’s during the first 90 mins. I honestly thought 20 of these minutes could have been edited out, because I thought it took the film way too long to move forward and get to the real meat of the story, which is the Priest [Rodrigues] and Father Ferreira having a battle of wills.
…I really loved the fact that it didn’t treat the subject lightly or take on that mentality that you can’t question your faith.
-Excerpts from IMDB reviews