Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata, Yōsuke Kubozuka
Runtime: 161 Minutes
Silence represents a great many things for the esteemed Martin Scorsese. Not only baring the long-gestating fruits of his labours to bring this revered text by Shūsaku Endō to the screen, but the fact that this movie exists in the state that it does and constitutes a major release for one of cinemas greatest living filmmakers is still something of a wonder. Especially when taken into account that this is the kind of story and product that simply isn’t going to fly as large with audiences as much of his more audacious and populist work.
Yet another depiction by the filmmaker of how Catholicism is utilised by his characters as a means of combating guilt, here the guilt becomes an oppressive factor as the Tokugawa shogunate work to destroy the work of the Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) in their country, by means of exploitation and the destruction of holy images and teachings. The journey of Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) on their mission to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in a hostile environment draws immediately apparent narrative and thematic parallels to Joseph Conrad’s seminal work, Heart of Darkness; only transplanting the core theme of Western imperialism from that source material into colonialism through the means of spreading the Christian gospel.
The ‘silence’ of the title is not so much a question of whether or not god in that particular sense of the word exists – although that too is explored in some depth – this is rather a crisis of faith brought on by the isolation that this unknown and dangerous landscape has thrust upon the two missionaries. Christ may be there, but they are unable to feel his presence in a culture that so clearly doesn’t find it as essential to their more natural bounds. The factor of the natural environment and its importance to the livelihoods of the Japanese people remains of significant importance.
Scorsese and DP Rodrigo Prieto use an overt and loud visual language that, while calm and reserved in editing and motion, shows a deep sense of respect for not only its material but the majesty of cinema as a whole. Dressed and designed like a washed-out pastel painting, it looks and feels unlike any film Scorsese has ever made, less like the bombastic grandeur of his many epic genre yarns and closer to the work of Kenji Mizoguchi or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The latter more overtly as the film descends into arduous sequences of torture, suffering and martyrdom, and the collective strain that is breaking the spirits of these men unprepared to fight the war ahead of them - both emotionally and physically. Are belief and faith sometimes worth the torment that may cause a person?
Although not his longest picture, this still feels incredibly extensive with languor and heaviness of subject matter. Slow to such a degree with such stretched emotions that it will simply alienate many who are not prepared for such diffidence. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, the intention is likely to exhaust the audience as much as the protagonist, and yet like the former movie it doesn’t totally come across as intended all the time.
There’s also the issue of language in the film; although concerning Portuguese figures, they speak English with occasionally unstable accents that cannot be shaken of their contrived artifice. This becomes a real problem later on when the nature of what the natives believe Christianity to be about exposes the real cross wires of the language barriers, yet we’ve not really experienced that as observers.
While this is emblematic of the films general coldness in sentiment and presentation, there’s plenty of power to the sequences that matter the most and it’s undeniably impressive in its heart and mind. Protracted scenes of torture and social unrest play out before the camera from a variation of distances as the leads observe helplessly as their actions take hold of those they are trying to save. Garfield and Driver are both really excellent regardless of their language, their physical performances give a lot more to their characters than their hefty dialogues – with Garfield carrying much of the film on his own back. While Liam Neeson only appears at certain points he delivers his scenes with real credit and stoic grace.
It’s the performances of the Japanese cast that might linger the longest though with their more colourful cast of characters. Tadanobu Asano’s interpreter is fantastically wicked in his constant derision of Rodrigues’ internal struggle. Issey Ogata steals every scene he’s in as the Inquisitor, Inoue, and Yōsuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro is likely the film’s most tragic figure.
Silence might be an experience too rigorous for some, and it’s almost too distanced presentation from its lead characters for us to really find an anchored sense of empathy with them, but it’s still a rewarding and thought-provoking experience that has a power all its own.