Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Running Time: 161 mins
Synopsis: In the 17th century two Christian Missionaries (Garfield and Driver) sneak into Feudal Japan in order to locate their mentor Father Ferriera (Neeson) who has gone missing. It is a time when Christianity is outlawed in Japan and the two priests find their faith tested. Adapted from the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo.
Silence is a daunting film. Daunting to watch, daunting to make (it has taken Scorsese 28 years to bring this to the screen) and therefore a little daunting to review. It is a dizzingly complex look at faith in all its forms. Whether it be the dogmatic view of religious institutions, the pride and arrogance of religious sermonising or the way faith can be shown in many forms outside of the church. Taking Scorsese such a long time to make, primarily down to funding (let’s face it not many studios are chomping at the bit to finance expensive epics about feudal Japan even with Scorsese’s name on it), but just as much down to him being truly ready to take on such a personal tale. It is well known that Scorsese himself suffered through conflicted notions of his Catholic faith in his early life, and this is very much evident in Silence. Choosing to adopt your faith by other means is a key aspect of the films emotional thrust.
It isn’t just in the personal where this book’s journey to the screen took its time, it is down to Scorsese being ready as a filmmaker too. No young director could have made this film, not even one so immeasurably talented and confident as one who delivered Mean Streets at the age of 31. It is a film of starkly controlled measure. Opening with the incessant overwhelming noise of nature before all the sound is sucked from the room as the title appears, it hooks you immediately. Narrated at first by Liam Neeson’s Father Ferriera, a priest captured by the Japanese who wish to expel the Christian faith from within him. He witnesses the torture of fellow Christians in a scene of quiet horror. In fact Silence is rife with monstrous torture sequences, from death by pyre to worshippers being tied to a cross as the tide comes in, steadily drowning, their faith strong as their bodies weaken. Scorsese does not linger on these moments gratuitously, he concentrates more on the faces of those who look upon such horrors as they question themselves over whether keeping the faith is truly worth giving your life.
Soon Andrew Garfield as one of Ferriera’s students takes over the film and from here until the films mournful end 3 hrs later he owns every second of screentime. It is a magnetically fierce performance, not only his best but one of the best of the last few years. A phenomenally complicated role, his eyes awash with such pain, anguish and love that seeing him suffer is just devastating. We glimpse his selfish pride as he devoutly sticks to his faith despite the suffering it wreaks upon people. We see the arrogance of a man who, in one heavy handed but potent image, sees himself as the embodiment of Jesus himself. One who is willing to fall to martyrdom if necessary. A role such as Garfield’s is tough as conveying true unyielding faith can often fall into crude mimicry, finding the believability in belief is a delicate balancing act. One that he handles with aplomb, with all the torture he witnesses and suffers it can be easy for us to will him into apostatising but so convincing is his faith that we understand his hesitance. It is a draining performance for him and for us.
The cast around him are uniformly excellent. Adam Driver does a lot with the much more calmer fellow priest, his restrained fear at the situation they find themselves in is heartrending to watch. His Father Garrpe is rather more strictured to the faith than his fellow priest, and can see more clearly than his brother faith of the consequences surrounding their mission. Due to the nature of the story he sits out a large portion of the film, but his final moments are powerfully wrenching to watch. Liam Neeson also sits out great swathes of the film but offers some of his most vital work as the priest who truly sees the real challenges inherent in their foolhardy mission to convert. The interplay between him and Garfield is palpably weighty with consequence and meaning.
Outside of the Western cast Scorsese has assembled a truly terrific bevy of Eastern performers. The numerous villagers the priests come upon are authentically compelling in their desperate longing to have their faith confirmed and their confused sorrow at what this faith punishes them with is heartbreaking. Notable standouts though are Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, an almost comedic character (as per Scorsese he can be surprisingly adept at mining subtle humour amidst the tragedy) who reveals inner depths of religious pain. His repeated turns from sinful behaviour to immediate contrition are endemic of the films idea of the fluidity and two-faced nature of religion. Then we have Issey Ogata as the Inquisitor Inoue, a commanding but almost comical presence. His strange line delivery is captivating and the way he balances extremely horrific acts with an almost gentle care towards Garfield’s priest is troubling to watch.
This is Scorsese’s picture though and his craftsmanship here is impeccable. The beautifully measured cinematography, filled with haunting shots of a country that is rooted in its relationship with nature. It takes a master filmmaker to forgo a normal score in favour of intense sound effects, the sound of waves breaking against rock as men are strung up to drown is remarkably more effective than any melodic hymn. There is some music but it is reduced to almost a whisper in the background of a few scenes. This is a film that wants us to really feel the inner workings of a man of devout faith, frequently we hear the silent prayers of Garfield and the proceeding silence as God does not answer, offering a potent reminder of the one-sided nature religion inevitably brings. In some strange form Scorsese has given a sound to silence. Although the moment when Garfield actually hears the word of Jesus is a remarkably ballsy move in a film quietly filled with many such moments.
Yes this is a long long film, particularly in the final 30 mins, which could have been trimmed down considerably. As befitting all director passion projects Scorsese seems to have trouble actually ending his magnum opus. The final shot is impressively potent but has a slight weakness in that you feel at this point a sense of relief that it is all over, probably not the defining thought Scorsese wanted you to leave with. However it only slightly lessens the impact of a film of immense power, you will leave questioning the very fabric of your faith, whether it is your faith in a religious doctrine or your faith in your fellow man. It is a film that seeps into your soul.
Verdict: Scorsese justifies the lengthy journey to screen with a film that is long, punishing, challenging and rewarding. Like religion itself, it offers no easy answers but there is redemptive perspective in its message. A masterpiece.