For over twenty years, Martin Scorsese has toiled and troubled to make Silence, the second adaptation Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, a piece which has never quite escaped his mind’s eye, remaining the definition of a passion project. Once you watch his ultimate picture, it’s not hard to see why he had such a battle for financing, despite lining up some of the greatest actors of our age over the years in the main roles. Scorsese’s movie is unlike anything you’ll see this year, and quite honestly many other years.
A long, large-scale meditation on the very essence and meaning of man’s relationship to a higher power, his film manages to keep to traditional narrative while also subverting your expectations with at times, almost, circular storytelling, shifting character motivations and long scenes in which Andrew Garfield’s central priest, Padre Rodriguez, is tested to the very core of his soul. It’s also among the quietest pictures you will ever see, with an almost entire absence of traditional score, letting the dialogue and nature tell the story. Scorsese actually titles this a ‘picture’ on the poster, and that’s not just an affectation to films of old; Silence is as little like a modern ‘movie’ as you can imagine.
That’s intentional. Scorsese has recently spoken about how he’s dismayed by how movies are made, and his picture here is a distinct throwback to not just the historical epic, but equally Bergman in many respects with its meditations on, at times literally, the abyss. Scorsese has always been fascinated with religion, whether it’s through the twisted faith applied in his gangster pictures such as Goodfellas, or exploring the Dalai Lama in Kundun; indeed if Silence has a companion piece, it’s surely that film. Instead of Tibet & China, Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks shine a light on 17th century Japan, and the ruthless persecution of the Christian faith being utterly rejected by an establishment who believe in the Buddha and man’s relationship with nature rather than transcendence.
Silence is all about that dichotomy as presented through Rodriguez, and his fellow priest Garupe (a somber Adam Driver), who leave Portugal on a mission to find their mentor Ferreira, believed to have committed ‘apostasy’ – the rejection of the Christian God and conversion into a Japanese subject. As a mission, this is just a way to hang plot – Scorsese’s film rapidly becomes about Rodriguez confronting a conflicting faith he cannot accept, or in many ways understand.
Though in many respects it ultimately believes in the Christian God, reflecting perhaps Scorsese, the screenplay explores not just the trials of religion on the soul but equally the meaning of polytheism. Questions are asked, principally by Liam Neeson who brings a haunted, beaten gravitas to Ferreira, about whether what the Christians and the Japanese believe is the same thing. Garfield lacks to an extent the transformative ability to take Rodriguez to his apotheosis (oddly enough you sense Driver could have played his role better), but he invests his all in an admittedly difficult role; mercurial in one sense about his faith yet unwavering in another, especially before Issey Ogata’s playful inquisitor or Yosuke Kubosuka’s turncoat Kichijiro.
The screenplay affords Garfield plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but he lacks bite at times. Oddly enough so does the film in general; Scorsese paints a beautiful pallet of a quiet, ordered, lush Japan filled with a code of honor at odds with a puritanical horror inflicted on its own people converted to Christianity, which parallels what Torquemada oddly enough did in Spain some years before. Yet sometimes the script plays down, or even acts playful, when you wish for more subtlety and depth. It doesn’t radiate with Hollywoodization, nor does it pander, but there’s a certain predictability and clarity you wish in a way Scorsese had hidden. It’s a film with much to say but doesn’t always know how to say it.
This takes nothing away from the achievement. Simply getting a picture like Silence made in this day and age is a miracle in itself, and it would never happen without a towering cinematic giant like Martin Scorsese behind the helm. It’s often poetic, frequently engaging even if religion doesn’t fascinate you, and holds at its core several excellent performances essaying difficult characters. Though a slower, meditative piece, it nonetheless lacks the power and punch to transform itself into another Scorsese masterpiece, yet it could well be a picture that matures with age, time and distance. Many will overlook it, especially in favor of Scorsese’s other works, but this deserves appreciation as a passionate, ambitious piece of art. Just remember: it’s really not a movie.
★ ★ ★ ★
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