Silence (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some disturbing violent content
Running Time: 161 min.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yosuke Kubozuka, Liam Neeson, Yoshi Oida, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Ciaran Hinds
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese (based on the novel by Shusako Endo)
Review published January 7, 2017
Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel provides the basis for Martin Scorsese's (The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo) adaptation set in the 17th Century, regarding a couple of Portuguese missionaries, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge) and Father Francisco Garupe (Driver, Midnight Special), who travel to Japan to find their long-lost mentor, Father Ferreira (Neeson, The Huntsman: Winter's War), after discovering a letter written by him a few years back detailing the suffering of the those wishing to spread Christianity there. Ferreira is believed to still be alive in the island country, though there is a question on what circumstances he is currently living under, and whether his faith has been abandoned in favor of living a life as a Japanese noble. The Jesuits find themselves within a hostile environment toward those of Christian beliefs, having to hide out after being helped by the inhabitants of a village who are ravenous for Christian faith. The native villagers exuberantly offer to help the padres and their mission, knowing that it could mean certain torture and death should their activities be discovered, unless they make a public denouncing of their faith.
Scorsese gets to return to flexing his Catholic soul searching with a less controversial attempt, after stirring up much resentment from devout members of the Church in The Last Temptation of Christ. Silence feels more personal than most of Scorsese's more recent endeavors, which may not translate to widening his appeal, but it also makes for a more interesting read among cinephiles who prefer to learn about how filmmakers tick based on the material they seek to put up on the silver screen.
At just a little over two hours and forty minutes, some will find it a bit lengthy given the sometimes methodically repetitive display of its central themes, but never to the point where it begins to wear out its welcome for those who might be interested in a period piece about the prolonged agony among those who are tested with mortal peril for believing what they believe. It's not only a test of faith, but also a test of their own doubts on how what their faith means, asking them to become apostates in a scenario where they are already more than willing to accept becoming martyrs. But, the story offers us to muse upon, is martyrdom the best way to go under these circumstances, especially with so many other lives on the line?
There's also intrigue in the central mystery to be explored regarding the whereabouts of Father Ferreira, and what condition they will find him in upon discovery, if they even find him at all. As with Coppola's Apocalypse Now, the search for the wayward priest makes each step toward discovery an eerie revelation, though Scorsese opts to keep the storyline grounded more in reality than in exploring surreal use of metaphor and horror elements. The film also grapples with in interesting back-and-forth argument regarding whether Christianity can indeed take root within Japan, or whether the "swamp" is not capable of supporting the beliefs among people who can't grasp even the most basic concepts of the Christian God and its core tenets.
In addition to his direction, Scorsese also co-adapts Japanese Christian author Endo's book along with Jay Cocks, who has worked with the maestro twice before with Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence. While the film contains acts of violence, torture, and beheadings of those who have no reason to be treated with punishment save for their own personal religious beliefs, it should be noted that Scorsese falls far short of the very graphic likes of Mel Gibson (or even Scorsese, for that matter, in earlier works) in his treatment of such violent scenes, even more subdued than Gibson's rousing-but-overly-jacked World War II biopic that also features Andrew Garfield, in yet another impressive performance, as a devout Christian man dealing with deadly forces in Japan, Hacksaw Ridge. There's also a darkly comic approach that Scorsese employs, both in the depiction of the Inquisitor, who seems to find the test of logic between the two philosophies an invigorating challenge, but also in the tragically weak-in-resolve recurring character played by Yosuke Kubozuka, who seems to think that sinning can be absolved through absolution and contrition, which gives him extra incentive to do so.
Scorsese also brings in haunting elements, as we get bits and pieces of Rodrigues' internal monologue through narration of introspect. Sometimes we hear his own thoughts, while in other times, we hear a distinct other voice that hauntingly encourages him on what the correct course of action might be. Is it the voice of God, or merely the padre's rationalization for trying to justify different courses of action that he might take in finding a way to worship in faith while continuously being tested by the torture and death of those around him who seem to believe in his message enough to die for him? Considering Rodrigues' physical and emotional transformation, one might even become of the feeling that he is beginning to believe his thoughts and those of the Lord's are one and the same, especially in a scene in which he begins to see Christ's visage as Rodrigues peers upon his reflection in a running brook. While his religion would suggest that death is a release into paradise, Rodrigues' resolve in this manner is pushed to the extreme trial of wills, as he begins to waver on whether it is better for the Japanese flock who follow him to apostatize and save their physical lives, or to save the souls that will journey to that paradise he has always preached would be there for the true believers.
Beautifully photographed from Rodrigo Prieto (The Homesman), capturing the rugged, mostly uncultivated terrain filled with jagged beaches and scenic misty mountains, along with impressive set and costume design, there is nothing but wonderful words one can have regarding Silence from a production standpoint. As is fitting with the title, most striking is the prolonged absence of a musical score for most of the lengthy run time, concentrating more on the long and arduous endurance test of faith that the film evokes through its fittingly prolonged recurrences in showing barbaric acts of cruelty inflicted among people who are rooted out by an evil establishment who think they are preserving their country from being taken over by foreign interests. The title suggests that those who follow in the faith must sometimes be silent in order for that faith to survive, but it also is about that silence they feel in the face of overwhelming pain and sorrow, as they persist in prayers that seemingly aren't answered by God in a manner that can be readily perceptible.
Slow to build and rarely truly gripping from a pacing standpoint, Silence will likely not go down as one of Scorsese's masterpieces, but there are enough compelling moments and potent ideas within the film, especially once the Inquisitor and his zealously dutiful henchmen come in to Rodrigues' path, to easily give it a recommendation for those who eagerly await each film of his that rolls out. It should also have some legs among those who are attracted to films about suffering and suffocating tests of faith, particularly in the most severe and adverse of conditions, and among those who are the most learned and devout among the true believers. It also seeks to showcase the power of belief, as well as the strength that it can hold among the unified people who find a source of strength through the shared experience of faith.
It's not what many might call a truly inspired masterwork, but it is certainly a sophisticated and textured one made by a master craftsman who wishes to explore and wrestle with the themes of his piece that speak to him personally, and dutifully builds upon a narrative to deliver a complex tale of divine inspiration, told by an respected and consummately professional storyteller.
©2017 Vince Leo