Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Tadanobu Asano, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yōsuke Kubozuka
Run Time: 161 mins
‘Silence’ has been Martin Scorsese’s passion project for 25 years and is an adaption of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name. It details the story of two 17th Century Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to preach Christianity and also to find their missing mentor, Father Ferreira, who they fear may have renounced his faith after being tortured. It stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as the two priests, two both very prominent actors who have been elevating up the ranks over the years and the cast is rounded out by Liam Neeson, who plays the small role of Ferreira. A lot of people have been quick to point out that ‘Silence’ marks a departure from a lot of Scorsese’s other work but I would disagree. Take a look at ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ or ‘Kundun’ for example, two other religious epics that he has made and this falls into that category. In fact, in many ways, ‘Silence’ completes a trilogy of religious epics. The film had been expected to go on to be nominated for many Awards but other than a Best Cinematography award for DOP Rodrigo Prieto, the film has been completely shut out despite garnering very strong reviews from both critics and audiences alike. So has ‘Silence’ been worth the wait and is it the careful, meticulously crafted work that we have been led to believe?
‘Silence’ is a beautifully crafted film that features some knock-out performances and is frequently emotionally wrenching. Scorsese directs this film with precision and develops these characters extremely well hence the rather intimidating 161 minute run time. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is stunning and the film poses lots of philosophical questions and is a brutal test that questions a lot of characters’ religious beliefs. That said, ‘Silence’ is not quite a perfect film. I have problems with the score (more soundscape) and I also think the film does lose its footing in its ending which tonally shifts a little and it threatens to undo the superb work the rest of the film has tried to craft. It might be that it just requires a rewatch but I did come out feeling underwhelmed as a film that had taken this long to set up its narrative doesn’t exactly reward the viewer’s patience. But despite this, it is a work of art.
‘Silence’ hinges on some truly standout performances not only by its lead actors but also its supporting ones too. Andrew Garfield delivers a career-best performance, demonstrating a great maturity as the Priest, Sebastião Rodrigues, and it is refreshing to see him choose some interesting roles post-‘Spider-Man’. Garfield has been nominated for an Oscar for his lead performance in another Awards film this year, Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ which will be hard to top from this film. Rodrigues’ faith is tested time and time again and Scorsese portrays the extent to which he feels he is of benefit in his mission to spread Catholicism with a sequence mid-way through the film where he looks at his reflection in a puddle of water and sees a Christ-like figure. Adam Driver, who is also a notable rising star over the years is also very good here but he can’t quite match Garfield and is oddly sidelined as the film progresses. Garfield and Driver’s chemistry is very strong but as their characters begin to break away, this does very much become Garfield’s film. Liam Neeson’s role is small but pivotal to this narrative. Besides Garfield, the other standout performance in this film are by the Japanese cast. Tadanobu Asano chews the scenery as the nameless Interpreter and Issey Ogata as the Machiavellian-like Inquisitor who is responsible for the persecution of the Christians. Ogata is fabulous in this role and is very menacing and sinister and is easily able to match Garfield’s performance through repeated conversations over religion and religious torture.
Scorsese manages to craft a very grim picture of Japan, a world at first that these two priests don’t really know and an extended sequence in a secret Christian village manages to perfectly encapsulate the scarcity of this religion and the horrors of being discovered and subsequently tortured. The majority of the second half of the film deals with Garfield’s suffering for his religion and the attempts by the Japanese for him to apostatise. Scorsese chooses to explicitly portray the prolonged, violent torture methods that were used and this really does test our empathy with a lot of the characters that are so well developed. Unlike a lot of his other works, violence and gore is used sparingly to create a sense of shock and isn’t just used for the sake of it. One can tell that this is a deeply personal work and he clearly has a lot of respect for this material and in terms of direction, ‘Silence’ is one of his most maturely directed films yet.
Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, of whom it looks as if Scorsese is forming a partnership after he shot his last film, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ too is jaw-dropping and thoroughly deserving of the Oscar nomination it received. Although the film is shot in Taiwan, Taiwan stands in superbly for Japan and we get a real sense of what it is like to live in this world that is completely different to the Priest’s normality in Portugal. The torture sequences have a certain grandeur about them and unlike a lot of Scorsese’s works where the camera work is quite kinetic, Prieto certainly knows when to hold or explore a shot that is a little longer than is comfortable. He truly does a superb job.
I do have some reservations on the ending. After 140-minutes or so of the film, the film suddenly switches focus to another character that we have not been introduced to yet and I think this is to the film’s detriment as we have been following Garfield the whole way through and have endured in his suffering and his principles only for this to suddenly be taken away and told through a third person narrative. This is especially after Scorsese’s fantastic development of these characters through some prolonged sequences where one really gets a sense of this barren world and the ideals within and this is quite a jarring way to end the film. Perhaps the film just needs a rewatch to see how this all fits in but first impressions, the film left me rather cold in its ending and rather short-changed.
I also have some reservations on the score. The score is by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge of whom this is their first foray into film scoring but there are only slight murmurs of music throughout the film at times and the film uses more of a soundscape as opposed to a soundtrack. Perhaps I’m being a little short-sighted but why bother crediting them with this accolade if there is virtually none of it?!
Overall, ‘Silence’ is a fantastic film that explores religion in a very perceptive and personal manner and one can clearly note the effort that Scorsese has put into this project. This is complimented by some superb performances and character development. Faith, of all proportions is tested repeatedly in these characters throughout this film and it really is refreshing to notice these different perspectives from different characters who have led their own unique lives. This is clearly one of Scorsese’s most personal works and it has been worth the wait. This is a film that definitely requires multiple rewatches to work out its ending which I currently do have my reservations about but ‘Silence’ demonstrates that Scorsese is still a masterclass of his own in his direction and it is a real shame that this film hasn’t received the appropriate amount of Awards attention. As a film however, this is one of the best films of the year so far and if you stick with it, it is highly rewarding for the most part.