Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds and Liam Neeson
Plot: 17th century Japan. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Garfield and Driver) journey to find their mentor (Neeson), who is believed to have committed apostasy (renounced his religion). The priests struggle to hold on to their beliefs amongst the persecution and violence against secret Christianity beliefs.
Martin Scorsese is perhaps no stranger to creating strong stylistic films throughout his career, from Taxi Driver’s seedy cinematography of New York to Hugo’s verisimilitude CGI recreation of Paris. Silence, a project that he has been developing for over two decades, is arguably his effort at trying to make an avant-garde film along the vein of prominent European and Japanese filmmakers. Adapted from a 1966 Japanese novel, it is certainly an ambitious effort from a director who has dealt with religious themes in his past. Unfortunately, while artistically stunning, the result is an admittedly overlong and unsatisfying work that doesn’t really stand amongst Scorsese’s best efforts.
If Silence was judged on its artistic merits alone, then it would very well be a masterpiece. The scenery of 17th-century Japan with its isolated beaches and thick jungles is both strikingly beautiful and desolate at once, a muted colour palette and DP Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork bearing a similar nightmarish resemblance to Vietnam in Apocalypse Now. This is further enhanced by the minimal use of music and the emphasis on using natural sounds to literally reflect the silence of the film’s sombre atmosphere. So successful is this that the audience in the cinema barely said anything when the film ended.
What this proves, however, is that Silence is largely a triumph of style over substance, ultimately suffering from a frequently tedious plot with lack of character development and emotional resonance. The central protagonist is Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues, who doesn’t really attract much sympathy in his conflict against his Christian upbringing and his resistance from the Shogunate Inquisitor to renounce this. This isn’t really helped by the fact that the film is often slow and tension-free with only a few shockingly violent moments; one scene where a secret Christian is ruthlessly beheaded by a guard sticks in the mind. While this is understandably Scorsese’s intention, it still makes for very dull and long viewing (it clocks in at 161 minutes). The final 10-15 minutes especially seem unnecessary in the detailed examination of Rodrigues’ fate.
In all fairness, Scorsese tackles the pertinent themes of religious devotion and survival quite well. His greatest strength is probably being not taking a particular stance against the contradictory beliefs of both the Catholic Church and the Japanese. Both are neither right nor wrong and this is heavily evident in their starkly different approaches (the former’s arrogance and the violence on the latter’s part). Scorsese also benefits from having a strong cast all giving very good performances. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson both make the most out of fairly pointless characters while Tadanobu Asano is terrific as the Inquisitor’s manipulative interpreter. But the film ultimately belongs to Garfield. Even if Rodrigues isn’t fully realised, Garfield succeeds in drawing out the character’s torment and anguish throughout his ordeal as he finds his own seemingly defined beliefs contested. It is both Garfield’s performance and the scenery that successfully capture the devastating loss of human belief that the rest of Silence struggles to express.