Silence, the new film by Martin Scorsese, opens with almost as literal a vision of Hell as one could imagine. The year is 1633; the place, a craggy, volcanic expanse near Nagasaki called Unzen. Through the sulphur fumes and scalding vapor, we see European men, their hands tied, being led by Japanese soldiers to the boiling springs that dot the landscape. Their robes are parted and searing water poured on their skin. In voiceover, it is explained that the ladles used are perforated such that each individual drop may strike the skin “like a burning coal.” The springs themselves are called, aptly enough, jigoku, or “hells.”
The man narrating this excruciating torture is Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit missionary. The victims, who number in the dozens, are his fellow Catholic priests. Christianity has been outlawed as a threat to Japanese culture and it is being burned out of the country in the most direct manner available.
Father Ferreira’s observations are committed to a letter, and it is in that context that we hear them again. It is now 1640, seven years after the horrors he recounted, and a senior Jesuit (Ciarán Hinds) is reading the letter to two young priests who were once Ferreira’s pupils, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). The elder priest also informs them that Ferreira subsequently disappeared and is rumored to have “apostatized”—that is, renounced God.