| Two priests travel to Japan in an attempt to locate their mentor and propagate Catholicism.
Christianity came to Western Japan in 1542 by way of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal who brought gunpowder and religion. They were welcomed mostly for the weapons they brought and their religion was allowed to be practiced openly. Christianity was banned, however, after reports circulated of missionary intolerance towards the Shinto and Buddhist religions, and there were rumors of the sale of Japanese into overseas slavery. It wasn’t until the late 1630s that a complete ban on Christianity was declared and enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate and persecutions, torture, and murders were relentlessly pursued. And it’s the time period where the story of ‘Silence’ plays out.
Martin Scorsese has been trying to make Silence for over 25 years, to call it a passion project does not do it justice. It was while riding a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto on the way to film a cameo in an Akira Kurosawa (he played Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams) movie that Scorsese finished the book by Shûsaku Endô that his movie would be based on. All of this shortly after he had finished one of his if not his most controversial movie ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. Since then Silence has been through all types of development hell, constantly being pushed back by movies like Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island and The Departed. Silence is finally here, from that 1989 trip to Japan to 2017, Scorsese has gotten to make his “passion project” and he has put all he has into it. Not showing any signs of fatigue as far as his filmmaking styles go, Scorsese is proving himself to be someone worth following for at least another decade or more. His auteuristic feel throughout most of his films does seem to be slightly absent here, but he does also seem to be taking pointers from classic directors from the beginning of cinema.
The cinematography is a strong point throughout the movie, utilizing lighting, perspective, and other areas well. And while the beginning shows off more of the artistic shots, the movie as a whole captures the realism of the era from scenery to skin. The film’s score is made up predominantly of ambiance and natural sounds, such as the chirping of insects at dusk. The use of sound effects is really evocative in creating moods and guiding the narrative without the use of too much actual music. For instance, the screams of agony endured by prisoners in Nagasaki are blood-curdling, while Mokichi’s hymn is filled with emotion. Then of course there’s the use of silence itself, particularly at the film’s climax. It’s enough to make you sit up and pay attention, which for this film is important to have.
“I am so tempted to despair. The weight of your silence is terrible.”
Andrew Garfield carries the movie expertly and without ever wavering. He deserves praise for living the suffering and really encapsulating the blind devotion of Rodrigues in spite of the pain he and others around him endure. Adam Driver is pretty good as his companion, fellow Jesuit priest Garrpe, who grows impatient with the locals. Liam Neeson doesn’t appear all too often, but balances the mentor act he does so well with a more subdued and downtrodden performance, showing the suffering he has also endured and the psychological marks that leaves. The Japanese actors were all quite admirable too, particularly Tadanobu Asano as Rodrigues’ interpreter, Shin’ya Tsukamoto as Mokichi and Issei Ogata’s as the Inquisitor.
The film isn’t flawless and it does carry problems, one being the run time. I think it’s a little too long (2hr 41 min), it could really benefit from a tighter edit and to be shaved down by about 20 minutes here and there. There were two or three scenes where I was on the verge of getting bored. It never quite happened, but in these scenes the long run time can be felt. Same goes for the pacing which could’ve been a bit tighter in a few places. I also think it sorely lacks a sense of history. We get a satisfying and granular peek onto one man’s crisis of conscience but we get very little information on the social, political and economic forces that have shaped Rodrigues’s harrowing story.
The faithful and the faithless will no doubt see Silence in vastly different ways. As an atheist and a history geek myself, I still think you don’t need religion to be astonished by (some of) the faithful. You can also only gravitate the film more as form and catch on to the channeling of Japanese greats such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi and especially Akira Kurosawa (even some Bergman), which I quite enjoyed myself. But like in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (also lead by Andrew Garfield) what the lead character in ‘Silence’ ultimately possesses is to which faith ultimately bestows, which is strength. Even if you believe that there is no God, then doesn’t that strength just proceed from inside? From the tortured muddle of humanity itself? ‘Silence’ is a film about faith, God and Christendom that ultimately valorizes humanity in all its messiness and compromise. I think it’s a film that asks us to look past the chasms of belief and disbelief that separate people, to draw the faithful and faithless closer together.
‘Silence’ is a such a good directed movie that, as mentioned before, is most likely going to divide audience. Now while I don’t quite think it’s Scorsese’s best I do think that it will go down as one of his most ambitious projects. And while this isn’t a film I’m going to rush out to see it again, it’s definitely one that I’m not going to forget any time soon.
‘Silence’ gets an 8.6/10.
Shot on 35's Rating Sheet: 9.5 – 10.0: Excellent! 8.5 – 9.5: Fantastic, but with minor flaws 7.5 – 8.5: Great, but with issues 6.5 – 7.5: Okay, but with major issues 5.5 – 6.5: Had potential, but falls flat hard. 4.5 – 5.5: Disaster!