Dir.: Martin Scorsese
“I worry. They value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how can we deny them?”
So states Father Rodrigues, the main protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s newest faith-based epic, Silence. Though marketed as a singular struggle of one man’s faith as he must overcome trials and tribulations of spreading the message of Christianity in a country that has no interest in Christ, this film tackles a much larger, far more sociocultural theme: that of the inherently incompatible, perpendicular nature of Western and Eastern ideologies. Like Wolf of Wall Street and The Departed before it, Scorsese shows that he is focused less on promoting either side as right or wrong. Rather, the director sprawls both the Christian and the Buddhist cultures out equally, and though Rodrigues is in nearly every frame of the film, it’s easy to understand and even sympathize with the initially savage and cruel Japanese military, as they torture, kill and otherwise demolish both European Christians and Japanese converts alike. Silence proves to have a lot more on its mind than the recent faith-based trending movies have, and though this is partially due to Scorsese’s skill as a director, this depth of writing can also be attributed to the novel upon which it is based. I have not read this novel, but I can only assume that author Shūsaku Endō and Scorsese had similar intentions in showing both sides of the cultural conflict, as both Rodrigues and the Japanese inquisitor in the film both feel similarly justified and righteous in their separate arguments. While it may not be as outright entertaining or as filled with spectacle as some of his more recent films, Silence succeeds in providing excellent food for thought within a grand, natural cinematic scope.
The film focuses mainly on the journey that two priests take to Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira, as he is reported lost in Japan and that he has renounced his faith. While the first third of the film shows the initial journey to Japan and their conversions that take place among some secretive and isolated villagers, it’s the remaining two thirds of the film that prove Scorsese has something grander to say about the nature of faith and belief. As the Japanese military and the priests’ cultural views collide, and collateral damage happens all around them, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) must run and hide away from the carnage, while also doing their best to help those in need. Though the film canters at a slow and methodical pace, the screenplay deliberately and slowly amps up the stakes, and tensions continuously rise until the final scene. I could guess where the story was going for the first couple hours, but by the final act, I was surprised by just how far both sides took their conflict. In a beautiful and profound way, the film’s ending and final shot help to cap off the conflict. Scorsese’s longer epic novel adaptations never disappoint in providing an excellent story and complex addressing of themes, and this film is no exception. As far as the screenplay and the writing goes, this is my favorite Scorsese film that takes place before the 1970s.
Regarding Silence's acting, it is mostly stellar, as everyone from the leads to the Japanese supporting cast all provide excellent and convincing performances. The Japanese inquisitor, played by Issei Ogata, delivers the most subdued and calculated performance of the film, while Garfield and Driver provide performances with a lot more emotional range as their characters must undergo increasingly perilous situations. My main issue with the performances in the film are in the two leads’ accents, as at times their Portuguese accents fade in and out to replace their native British/American intonations. I’m not an expert on Portuguese, but I was taken out of the film in a couple of key scenes, which is a shame because this film by almost all other accounts is heavily immersive. Still, their performances remain convincing and sympathetic, and I never truly felt like this issue truly diminished the film’s immersion in an unforgivable way. Though Liam Neeson is barely in the film, his few appearances also highlight his skill as an actor, and with his recent chain of mediocre action film roles he has chosen to take, it’s good to be reminded of his mastery in the dramatic department here. Scorsese shows yet again that he knows how to get the best possible performances out of his actors and out of his screenplay. Garfield is still an up-and-coming actor known mainly for Spider-Man in the public conscience, but between this film and Hacksaw Ridge, I hope he procures more leading man roles in the future, because his work here is worthy of praise despite his wavering accent.
The cinematography and score both help provide immersion along with the acting and narrative. Shot on what appears to be 35mm film, the nature footage of outdoor Japan (or wherever this film was shot) always looks beautiful, and this natural beauty helps to accentuate the lead actors’ faith. Filled with mostly wide angles and a restrained score in which Scorsese takes the No Country, less-is-more approach with the music, there are several times where the visuals within the film become so spiritually vibrant and emotionally poignant that I felt moved even when nothing of narrative consequence occurs; for a faith-based period piece in Imperial Japan, this is a massive accomplishment. The editing feels similarly tight despite the long runtime, and I was never confused by character motivations or scene transitions. There are no fancy editing tactics on display here like in The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas, which prove that Scorsese still has a chameleonic sense of integrity with his films. The director knows when to provide spectacle and when to peel back the layers of the narrative to provide sufficient character development, and this film is more of the latter than the former. When scenes of violence and action do happen--though the number of times these scenes happen can be counted on one hand--they feel urgent and merited, and help in providing vigor and harrowing, climactic conflict. This film is a stupendous showcase for the merits and power that slow storytelling can provide. Even if you are not a person with faith, if you appreciate well thought-out storytelling, you will find a lot to like here.
Silence wonderfully tells a profound story of faith, culture clash, and the testing of convictions in a harsh environment. What the film lacks in spectacle and sheer entertainment value is made up for in narrative heft and in-depth characters. The performances in the film and the cinematography add visual efficiency to the screenplay, and this proves to be a more than worthy addition to Scorsese’s filmography. The director has made films for nearly half a century at this point, and his career still shows no signs of significantly diminishing in quality any time soon. Whereas it has had delays and a tough time in production, let alone its highly limited theatrical distribution, this is a film that the movie industry has all but tried to forget and forsake, which is a shame, because this is a work of art unlike most other faith-based films, or even historical Christian period pieces. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, wherever your political inclinations lie, and whomever you believe in regards to the nature of man’s place in the universe, the struggle that humanity faces in identifying its collective purpose is a universal endeavor, one that this film not only understands but also has a good deal to say about. The conversation this film presents is no less valid today than it was hundreds of years ago, and mankind may continue to ponder this until the extinction of our race. Meanwhile, we can at least watch some good films about this shared contemplation.