A film review by Craig J. Koban January 23-, 2017

RANK:  #15

SILENCE jjj
½

2016, R, 161 mins.

 

Andrew Garfield as Father Sebastião Rodrigues  /  Adam Driver as Father Francisco Garrpe  /  Liam Neeson as Father Cristóvão Ferreira  /  Ciarán Hinds as Father Valignano  /  Issei Ogata as Inoue  /  Tadanobu Asano as Interpreter  /  Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi

Directed by Martin Scorsese  /  Written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, based on the book by Shûsaku Endô

SILENCE has been a long gestating passion project for Martin Scorsese, one that's been in development as far back as the 1990's.  It's a thematically complex, visually beautiful, thoughtfully acted, and powerfully dramatic historical epic - based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo - that concerns Jesuit priests trying to spread the word of God and Christianity to Japan during the early 17th century.  The film contains some of Scorsese's most potent imagery he's ever conjured up on screen..  

Clearly, this material has deep personal meaning for him, seeing as he yearned to be a priest early in his life and has subsequently made two films - THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and KUNDUN - that heavily featured spiritual subject matter.  In a way, SILENCE rounds off Scorsese's "faith trilogy", and perhaps more than any other previous film from the acclaimed filmmaker it's arguably his most audacious work. 

Even though the film has a sprawling, but problematic running time of nearly three hours (more on that in a bit), SILENCE tells a deeply insular story of stark simplicity.  The screenplay - written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, the former who also co-wrote THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and GANGS OF NEW YORK) concerns the overarching narrative of Jesuit priests trying to convert the largely Buddhist Japanese to Christianity during the aforementioned period, which was made all the more difficult seeing as Christianity was severely outlawed in Japan, with many in positions of authority considering it a cancer on their society.   Yet, the priests - despite such steadfast and frequently hostile and violent opposition - were deeply driven by their faith that imparting Christianity to the Japanese was just and right.   If anything, SILENCE is engrossingly rich and thought provoking because of the multitude of questions it poses - without directly answering them - about spirituality, religious ideology, culture clashes, and the inherent conflict that resides within different people that are doggedly devoted to their respected faiths and preserving their ways of life.   

 

 

One particular priest, Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), traveled from his home country of Portugal on such a mission to transform the Japanese into a Christ loving culture, but when he mysteriously vanishes this raises far too many concerning questions from his friends and colleagues back home.  Deeply worried over Ferreira's ultimate fate, fellow priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) convince their superior to allow for them to secretly enter Japan to not only determine what happened to their friend, but to also intrepidly continue on his work.  Unfortunately for the pair, they soon realize just how arduously difficult their challenge to convert the Japanese will be.  Even though there are pockets of citizens that willfully practice Christianity in secret, most of them fear adopting the faith, seeing as methods to eradicate it from the country are inordinately brutal.  The Inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), has made it his personal vendetta to punish any incoming Jesuit priest as well as any locales that support them.  After much hiding and witnessing the cruelty of the Inquisitor's methods, Rodrigues himself is captured by him, which eventually boils over to a battle of wills between the pair to see which one will break first.   

SILENCE is a sometimes nightmarishly intense endurance test to sit through, mostly because it unflinchingly relays the hellish ordeal that Rodrigues and Garupe suffer through in their attempts to achieve success on their highly righteous mission.  SILENCE is not wall to wall violence, but the savagery of some of its imagery will linger with me for an awfully long time, especially in how in rarely shies away from showing shogun atrocities.  Christians are made examples of by higher Japanese authorities in methodically slow and painful ways.  For those that refuse to completely denounce Christianity by stepping on (literally) the fumie (a small likeness of Jesus), the repercussions and punishment are horrifically severe.  SILENCE is continually engaging - if not frightening - in the manner it shows the barbarity that occurred in Japan at the time and the lengths that men like Rodrigues and Garupe went through to see their cause through to successful fruition.

This brings us to the second half of the film, which is its most fascinating, during which time Rodrigues is brought before the Inquisitor and engages in a painfully protracted cerebral battle with him to convince him that the Christian way is the righteous way.  Rodrigues, if anything, is driven to the mental and physical breaking point, so much so that he begins to doubt the very worthiness of his mission and his own belief in God.  Not only is he imprisoned and kept in a small wooden cage, but he's also forced against his will to watch the torture of his fellow Japanese Christians, which the Inquisitor uses to demolish his morality.  One of the central queries that SILENCE poses is how powerful of a force is religious conviction when one with a strong belief in Christianity faces an utterly unwavering opponent that will most likely never change.   

Scorsese respects the intelligence and wherewithal of audience members to deal with the nagging uncertainties of Rodrigues' plight.  How much suffering will this man endure before he gives up?  What's more important to him: giving up altogether and abandoning his faith or staying firm in his opposition of the Inquisitor until the very bitter end?  Moreover, if he does give up will God forgive him?  Will God renounce him?  Or worse yet, will God even care or notice one way or another?  SILENCE is a film that's continually challenging from the Christian theological perspective, but it should also be pointed out that it never really engages in outright hero worship of the Jesuits, nor does it flat out condemn the Japanese as villainous monsters.  There's a surprising amount of time and care taken with showing multiple Japanese prerogatives both pro and anti Christian and digs deep into their respective mindsets.   Scorsese is not being forgiving, though, of the unpardonable savagery of the shogun, but he does give the Inquisitor, for example, ample screen time to calmly and plainly speak his mind and reveal his rationales.  In his mind, the seeds of Christianity could never germinate in the "swamps" of Japan and become a fertile tree.  Amazingly, SILENCE is fairly diplomatic with both sides and neither glorifies the Jesuits nor completely demonizes the Japanese.  There's an attempt here to understand both vantage points.

SILENCE is visually unlike just about any other Scorsese film in the sense that he never employs his typical stylistic hubris here and instead uses a lean and spare shooting style to quietly evoke a time and place from our distant past.  His understated and restrained aesthetic here allows his film to been more keenly observational of his characters and settings, which is a wise choice.  Aside from solid period production values and attuned direction, SILENCE allows the performers to really shine through in thanklessly difficult roles.  Garfield himself has never been better playing another character driven by faith (as was the case with the recent HACKSAW RIDGE), but he digs deeper here I think in evoking a man obsessively driven by a devotion to God that's plagued with unavoidable doubts.  Adam Driver's work greatly compliments Garfield's, and both actors create a tangible sense of religious brothership between them.  I especially appreciated Ogata's extremely tricky turn as the Inquisitor, whom has to suggest a man of reptilian evil that's not entirely the product of pure villainy; he gives the film's most quietly mesmerizing performance. 

SILENCE is such a commendably ambitious historical drama in so many respects that yet again demonstrates Scorsese at the zenith of his directorial might: At 74-years-old, he's tackling impressively diverse subject matter with the vitality and passion of a filmmaker half his age.  My only misgiving with SILENCE, though, is that it feels punishingly long to endure at times...and self indulgent bloat somewhat taints this film and holds it frustratingly back from greatness.  Narrative momentum is further stymied by Scorsese's lack of discipline in terms of knowing when to precisely end the film.  There's a specific point when it could have attained a conclusion of stark and immediate power, but then the film progresses onward another 15-20 minutes and tags on a fairly unnecessary epilogue that only really adds redundant filler to the picture.  A tighter and leaner SILENCE with a shorter running time would not only have been less taxing on filmgoers, but would have also made for a much more cohesive and satisfying overall experience.   

Still, I'd take an imperfect Scorsese film about endlessly challenging ideas that falls short of masterful status over just about any empty minded endeavor that's playing in a cinema right now.  I have no loss of faith in that.   

 

  H O M E