The release of a new Martin Scorsese film is still something to mark on your calendar, but perhaps the undoubtedly ambitious guilt trek SILENCE was too personal for his own good.
Two Portuguese Jesuits travel to Japan to investigate reports that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has abandoned Christian teachings and gone native. Japan is a dangerous place to be for any Christian, and soon fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) find themselves persecuted along with their new secret congregation by a relentless inquisition.
Silence is certainly a handsome-looking film, ugly-feeling film, with tropical mountainsides (Taiwan standing in for Japan) and volcanic plateaus shrouded in dramatic mist Kurosawa would be proud of in extreme contrast with horrific acts of torture and abject human misery. The attention to detail in the period costumes and historical locations lend this story a level of authenticity just as the bewildering decision to have some or the English-speaking cast affect Portuguese accents for the first few scenes breaks the illusion.
With the best will in the world, Garfield doesn’t yet have the skill to carry a film solo. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson do, but their contributions mainly come in the opening and final twenty minutes respectively. Garfield is fine when he has someone to play off, such as in the film’s excellent and emotionally charged final stretch where Rodrigues confronts Ferreira, but he is just not a compelling narrator or a character with enough layers to spend this amount of time with. I just wish we spent more time with Garrpe, who probably went through a much more interesting crisis of conscience offscreen. When he quite rightly realises the priests’ presence is endangering the remaining native Christians, he disappears to protect them, an act that must have wracked him with guilt and which is completely nulified by Rodrigues staying. Rodgrigues’ blind faith keeps him on his unwavering path no matter how many are harmed for his religion and he only relents with the express permission of his Lord and Saviour, and I found that hard to fathom without a faith myself.
While a time of sacraments and rituals, idols and inquisitors was not a subtle one, you find yourself asking Scorsese to cool it with the sledgehammer symbolism found throughout his film. The use of light levels and layers of sound would have probably been enough to amplify the subtext here. Jesus appears in the water and in the floorboards, silver pieces are scattered on the ground following a great betrayal, martyrs are subjected to cruel and unusual punishments and are very dignified in their agony.
This is Scorsese cleansing his soul, and I don’t think he cared how grueling it would be for the rest of us to sit through. I don’t have a problem with what he’s saying about the world, about faith, and his message comes through vividly in the end, but I’d have liked more tonal shifts along the way to break up the monotony. The thematically similar THE MISSION and APOCALYPSE NOW – with which Silence shares a plot through-line and mood – could both be as intense, but they also had peaks and troughs and more than one shade.
Undoubtedly religious atrocities were committed by the Japanese in this period. The same goes for Christians trying to spread their doctrine in countries socially and culturally the antithesis of European Christendom. Neither side comes out well, and nor should they. I understand Scorsese feeling like this was a film he had to make, but it’s hard-going with little reward for the majority of viewers. Beyond the impressive vistas, strong supporting players (particularly the Japanese cast) and a genuinely enlightening and affecting final stretch, this isn’t going to be counted among Scorsese’s great successes, even if I can’t dismiss it for being uninteresting. SSP