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Silence (2016) is the fifty-ninth film from the celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who’s diverse filmography includes shorts, features, documentaries and rockumentaries. Best known for his crime films (Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed), his collaborations with Robert de Niro (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Leonardo Dicaprio, (The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island). He is also celebrated for his cinephilia, seen in his work as a film historian, teacher and in films like Hugo. Silence is the latest project from a man who is arguably the most consistent and prolific filmmaker alive today. In on/off development and production for two decades, Silence is finally released to high expectations – perhaps expectations that are too high and impossible to live up to?
Set in the 17th century, Silence follows two Portuguese priests, Padre Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Padre Garupe (Adam Driver) as they travel to Japan to find their mentor, Padre Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who is reported to have renounced his faith, under torture from the Japanese authorities who have resisted the Christians missionaries. The young Priests have their faith tested by hunger, torture, fear and secrecy in a hostile environment. This is the second screen adaption of the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, exploring themes of faith, colonialism, culture-clash and religious hubris. Silence is a historical drama that aligns itself with Scorsese’s religious-themed films The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun yet its themes of identity and endurance echo across the oeuvre of the Catholic-raised Scorsese.
The film is mostly in English, but with the understanding that the accented English spoken is in the native Portuguese of the Priests and the Japanese converts who have learnt it from them. The cast works well here, despite varied and occasionally inconsistent attempts at a Portuguese accent from the leads. Liam Neeson, in a supporting role, doesn’t even bother, having reached the stage of his career where he is now an icon who is cast for his presence, his own Irish growl and all. His presence is pretty effective here as this generation’s cinematic father figure, who’s magnetic pull on the young Padres is believable.
We spend most of our time with the younger priests, as Padre Rodrigues, Andrew Garfield’s face radiates the compassion that fuels him, while Adam Driver’s Garupe’s frustration is more obvious. The earnest commitment of both slowly gives way to the arguably stubborn arrogance of a missionary. Yōsuke Kubozuka does well to makes us feel the desperation of Kochijuro, in his highly physical performance of the sometimes-Christian, who frequently struggles with faith. The power play between the stubborn faith of Rodrigues and the authority of the Inquisitor holds over his life and well-being is done well with the piercing often mocking voice of Issey Ogata. Shot in Taiwain using natural light the cinematography captures a visceral texture of inhospitable nature endured by the peasants and our protagonists in feudal Japan. The separate pieces are strong but what about the film as a whole?
Well, with the mammoth expectation and subject matter, I was expecting a historical epic, but it was more of a biopic, simply epic in the length of time it covers – decades – and the length of the film itself at 20 minutes shy of 3 hours. The film also suffers similarly as biopics often do, with too much plot to cover. While I’m not familiar with the novel, it seems the film could’ve benefitted by being a little less faithful to its origins allowing the film more breathing space. With many locations to meet, dialogue and narration to run through the themes are all explored in the text, not the subtext; themes are discussed but not powerfully felt.
The film delivers on a compelling story and transports you to a different time, but does not meet my expectation of a transformative epic. I am not a religious person but that does not mean I sat there as a stony faced atheist asking the film to convince me. I’m interested in the nature of religion and open to its mediation of faith and commitment the film cleanly presents its themes which you consider but did not experience. If you have the patience for its 161 minute runtime, the stomach for 15 rated (but not 18 rated) torture, and curiosity for the latest in Scorsese’s filmography this is a part-way rewarding and affecting film.