Cinephiles can finally clap eyes on what is purported to be Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating magnum opus, his film Silence, a movie nigh 30 years in the making, and a culmination of sorts of the various concerns he has explored throughout his career. The anticipation and hype are naturally high, and Scorsese just about crossed the finish line for awards consideration this year, recently unspooling the film for awards-giving bodies ahead of its commercial bow (in limited release) during the Christmas timeframe. As such, Silence should find favor with faith-based audiences and fans of the director, though commercial prospects beyond that might depend upon Academy Awards nominations (which it might well receive across the board).
Reportedly the result of a tough edit (like his previous film The Wolf of Wall Street), Silence in its finished version unspools as a somewhat languorous and heavy-handed drama marked by arresting visuals and, at times, a clunky script. An adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s eponymous 1966 Japanese novel, Silence traces two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), circa 17th century, as they head to Japan to hunt down their former teacher Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’s reportedly abandoned his Christian faith after facing persecution and torture by the Japanese.
After a prologue of sorts, showing Ferreira witnessing the torture of his Christian brethren in an impressively filmed sequence at some hot springs, the film takes off at a brisk clip, setting up something of a quest narrative as the two young priests head to Japan to track down their master. The early section of Silence is marked by plenty of incident, but just as the film hits its middle section, it begins to sag with repetitive sequences of apostasy rituals consisting of stepping on an image of Christ to renounce faith, torture sequences upon failing to do so, and conversations about doubt and faith.
Scorsese takes a screenwriting credit (shared with Jay Cocks) for the first time in over two decades, and based on the evidence of this script he seems a bit rusty. Silence substitutes the Portuguese language that the lead characters are speaking in context with Portuguese-inflected English. Either way, the syntax and construction of speech is extremely contemporary and often sounds incongruous coupled with the mostly period-accurate settings and costumes. The dodgy accents by Garfield and Driver don’t help and Garfield especially in the latter stages seems to give up on an accent entirely. Garfield repeatedly makes interjections of “Excuse me” and other phrases of modern colloquial parlance which perhaps might have sounded better in Portuguese and created a more distancing effect with the period.
The film also makes its central questions of faith and doubt extremely literal by staging lengthy verbose conversations about the same and even voiceover conveying the exact nature of the emotions that Rodrigues is feeling at any given moment, lest the audience miss a beat. The voiceovers are meant to be letters he’s writing and posting home, yet we never actually see him writing any letters and his perilous circumstances would make the posting of letters completely out of the question.
Silence‘s literal-mindedness doesn’t end there, as even visually, at moments of extreme piety by Rodrigues, the film cuts to an actual close-up of a Jesus fresco, showing how Rodrigues sees Christ. One would think this technique dulls the leap that one takes in faith – the audience should have been allowed to imagine how he feels close to Christ rather than simply cutting to an image of Christ. Even the film’s final image, a beautifully composed CGI shot, might divide audiences as some might see it as sledgehammer-obvious driving home a point and some might see it as sublime and revelatory.
In narrative terms, Silence definitely holds off the payoff of the tale by going through a lot of tedium with perhaps the point being that this is what a battle of faith feels like. The climax is telegraphed way in advance, within the first half hour in fact, when it becomes entirely obvious where the film is leading. It takes its own circuitous, agonizingly long path to that moment we all know is coming but when it does come, it indeed does deliver.
Silence‘s last section is its strongest with the climax and the long denouement affording Scorsese’s most gripping and compelling filmmaking, as he finally abandons his literal approach to create a wonderful sense of ambiguity (to be potentially undone by the aforementioned final shot, but its mileage may vary). The film, while visually beautiful and typically well-composed, uses its visual aptitude for setting up period and locations primarily. One wishes Scorsese had found a visual way to communicate some of the story’s central dilemmas too.
Silence, meanwhile, is to be commended for its admirably complex handling of questions of faith. The conversations, while wordy, can often be compelling in a push and pull manner as they cast significant doubt on the Christian faith and the conundrum as to how individual people are even interpreting Christianity, and who’s to say who has the correct belief? The film also tackles head-on the condescending arrogance of the West in thinking that they can convert an Oriental culture to their religion without consequences or any resistance. Even something as universal as faith cannot be plug and play, as philosophies of an ideal life and moral codes evolve differently and organically across different civilizations.
The film is aided by some great acting and the large Japanese cast is uniformly excellent, with veteran actor Issey Ogata delivering a magisterial performance as the sadistic but pragmatic Inquisitor. The English-speaking actors fare less well, with Garfield having to almost single-handedly shoulder the movie. He acquits himself well enough with a committed performance, but often his stubborn proclamations of faith in the face of persecution can seem like the tantrums of a petulant teenager rather than the suffering of a noble man of God.
Scorsese’s usual technical acumen is brought to bear in the exquisite design work and the spectacular photography by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and one has to admire Scorsese’s conviction in bringing an unconventional work to the big screen. Silence is perhaps not the masterpiece that most people expected, but it’s a serious and worthy film, definitely worth watching and examining for its crises of faith, even if you are, like this reviewer, an incorrigibly godless person.