Silence (2016)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/05/17 21:27:05

5 stars (Awesome)

There are any number of reasons why Martin Scorsese deserves to be considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. For me, one of the main reasons is that he has been making films steadily for about a half-century now and there is hardly one among them that I would not happily abandon everything I needed to do at any given moment and watch again if the opportunity arose. Whether it is one of the avowed classics like “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull” or “Goodfellas,” an offbeat personal project such as “The Age of Innocence” or “Kundun” or even an overt commercial consideration like “The Color of Money,” “Cape Fear” or “Shutter Island” that he occasionally finds himself working on, he approaches each one with such passion and energy, both in matters of cinema technique and in working with actors, that they still manage to feel fresh and vital no matter how many times one watches them.

Now he has returned with his latest work, “Silence,” and I find myself in the odd position of being of two minds about it. On the one hand, the film, a passion project that Scorsese has been trying to film for over 30 years, is a major work from a major director and while it may be too early in its existence to know for certain, I have a feeling that it will one day go down as one of the most important and significant titles in his illustrious filmography. That said, it is a film that is so grim and austere in its approach—made all the more so by its extended 160-minute running time—that I must confess that it is the first Scorsese film that I can recall that I cannot imagine returning to for additional viewings, at least for the foreseeable future.In other words, it is as close to a masterpiece as one could possibly want but for someone looking for a movie to kick back and relax with on a Saturday night, it might not quite fit the bill.

Based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo (which was previously filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda, a version that I have not seen), “Silence” is based around how Japan, under the rule of the newly powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, chose in 1620 to respond to the rising numbers of the populace converting to Christianity but shutting down its borders, officially banning the religion and brutally dealing with missionaries and converts alike. As the film opens, two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver)are informed by their superior (Ciaran Hinds) that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has gone missing while doing missionary work in Japan and there is evidence to suggest that he has either been killed or been forced under duress to renounce his faith. Because there is no definitive proof as to what has become of Ferreria, Rodrigues and Garrpe request to be sent over to Japan themselves to clandestinely search for him.

Once they arrive, the two wind up coming across groups of converted Christians who have been forced to practice their faith in secret and find themselves obligated to minister to them as well. One of the people they encounter is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a local drunk who saw his entire family killed before his eyes because of their religious beliefs and who now spends his time betraying people in terrible ways and then asking for repentance before doing it all over again. Sure enough , after being separated from Garrpe, Rodrigues is captured by Inquisitor Inoue Masahige (Issey Ogata), whose seemingly easygoing outward nature only partially conceals an intellect as ingenious as it is diabolical. It is his job to get Rodrigues to renounce his faith and embrace Buddhism but he also recognizes that simply torturing or killing him will do no good—at best, he is just another body and at worst, he becomes an instant martyr who could prove to be even more powerful and inspirational to the cause of Christianity in Japan. Instead, he forces Rodrigues to watch as other believers are brutally killed before his eyes, a move designed to torture him psychologically not only by making him bear witness to the brutality brought on by his work but also forcing him to contemplate why God remains silent and unmoving in the face of his repeated prayers. Whether out of devotion or sheer stubbornness, Rodrigues refuses to yield but when he finally discovers what really happened to Ferreria, the revelation is enough to shake even his intense faith .

Although there are still people out there who find it difficult to see him as anything other than a director of gritty crime films set on the streets of New York, I would venture to say that not only does “Silence” fit it perfectly with his overall oeuvre, he is perhaps the only filmmaker who would have even dared to attempt to bring this story to the screen and done so as beautifully as he has here. Of course, the easiest points of comparison are his two other most overtly religious projects, “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun,” and as he did in those earlier efforts, he uses “Silence” as a way of going beyond the iconography of religion in order to get at the deeper spiritual concerns behind them while at the same time playing them off of the more secular concerns that they inevitably come into conflict with at times in ways that are essentially reverent but nevertheless riddled with a deep-seated sense of pessimism. Beyond those examples, “Silence” also works as a wrenching portrait of a man caught in the midst of a personal crisis when he struggles to achieve the goals that he has been obsessively pursuing, whether it takes the form of making some kind of human connection (“Taxi Driver”), making it as a comedian (“The King of Comedy”) or of simply saving lives (“Bringing Out the Dead”), and is forced to contemplate whether those previously unshakable beliefs were all that they were meant to be in the first place. In this case, Rodrigues finds himself having to examine exactly what it is about spirituality that continues to drive him and whether it is worth the cost, especially since there is no evidence to suggest that God has any interest in the sacrifices being made in his name.

To be honest, “Silence” starts off a bit of a wobbly note as it sets up the story and characters but once the two priests land in a fog-shrouded Japan, it soon becomes absolutely mesmerizing. Though the film is obviously paced in a very deliberate matter that matches the stateliness of the material, the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker ensures that it is never boring and is instead frequently captivating. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (who worked with Scorsese previously on “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Vinyl” and whose contribution to “Passengers” is the only aspect of that film that doesn’t hurt too much when you think about it) offers up one gorgeous visual tableau after another that effortlessly paints Japan as exactly the kind of land of mystery that it must have seemed to be to most outsiders in that time. The screenplay by Scorsese and Jay Cocks may not be filled with incident but they tell their story in a smart and expansive manner and in its best scenes, such as the ones between Rodrigues and Inoue in which the latter offers up explanations as to why Christianity should not come to dominate his land that are thoughtful enough to make even the most devout Christians out there sit up and contemplate what he is saying. And while this is a violent film in many ways, Scorsese finds the right balance between demonstrating the cruelties that the Japanese are willing to inflict in order to rid themselves of Christianity without crossing the line into grotesque exploitation. Besides, as it is soon revealed, he is far more interested in exploring the mental and spiritual tortures suffered by Rodrigues than the physical ones.

The early scenes also don’t really do too many favors for Andrew Garfield and his performance as Rodrigues—there is nothing especially wrong with what he does in those scenes but he comes across as a little unfocused and some audience members may find themselves wondering if things might have been better if he and Adam Driver (excellent in what proves to by a smaller, though no less tricky, role) had switched parts before filming commenced. Like the film as a whole, however, his performance gains in strength as things progress and the final scenes include some of the best work that he has ever done. The notion of casting Liam Neeson as yet another mentor figure may seem as if it is teetering dangerously close to self-parody but he manages to conjure up a lot of power in his relatively brief appearance. That said, the film is effectively dominated by the performances of the two chief Asian actors—as Inoue, Issei Ogata is magnificent in the way that he plays his character so that he comes across as both sadistic beyond measure as well as oddly sympathetic when he explains the matters at hand from his perspective and Yosuke Kubozuka is just as compelling as Rodrigues’s constant betrayer who nevertheless winds up playing an important part on the man’s spiritual quest in the same manner that Judas did with Christ.

In the end, “Silence” is a brilliant film—easily one of the very best of 2016 and one that more than lives up to the expectations placed upon it by the combination of Scorsese’s reputation and the elongated path that it took on its way to the big screen. That said, this is a heavy and serious-minded film that only rarely tries to lighten its mood and that may prove to be a little to much for some viewers to handle, especially in a film clocking in at nearly three hours long. As I mentioned before, it probably would not be the first Scorsese movie that I would leap to take another look at if given the chance and I cannot think of a circumstance that would inspire me to sit through it again at any point in the near future. Hopefully that notion will one day pass and I will want to see it again because even after just one viewing, I can easily recognize it as a major work from one of our greatest and most increasingly idiosyncratic filmmakers (consider the fact that his film prior to this one was “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a Dionysian spectacle as far removed from the austere nature of “Silence” as one can possibly imagine) and one of the most penetrating and fascinating cinematic explorations of the notion of religious faith that I have ever seen.

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