Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Issei Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Yoshi Oida.
The Passion Of Scorsese?
Religion and questions of faith, belief, sin, redemption and the human condition have been consistent themes in the films of Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese, particularly in his The Last Temptation Of Christ and his Kundun. And those themes are again front and centre in his latest film Silence, which is something of a passion project for Scorsese. The film is set in Japan in the mid-17th century, a time of shoguns and ruthless warlords. At that time Japan was relatively closed to western influences as the authorities feared cultural imperialism and were particularly hostile towards Christians. Many Christians were being rounded up on the orders of the ruthless inquisitor Inove (Issei Ogata), and were being tortured and crucified or forced to renounce their faith.
The film centres around two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has gone missing. Word has arrived back at their seminary that Father Ferreira has committed apostasy (renouncing his religion rather than convert). Father Sebastio Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, recently seen in Hacksaw Ridge, etc) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver, from Paterson, etc) illegally enter Japan with the help of a drunken fisherman (Yosuke Kubozuka) and set out to find Father Ferreira. But the pair also find their faith and beliefs tested by their experiences in this foreign land.
Silence is based on the 1966 novel written by revered Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Endo was Japanese Catholic who suffered persecution both at home and abroad. Silence was previously filmed in 1971 by Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda. Scorsese has been trying to get his film made for the better part of thirty years, ever since he was given a copy of the novel by New York’s archbishop and its profound meditation on religious themes left a deep impression on him. Scorsese has often wrestled with his own faith, and this is obviously a deeply personal film for him and his take on the material is slightly different to Shinoda’s. The novel has been adapted to the screen by Scorsese himself in collaboration with Jay Cocks (who also scripted The Gangs Of New York and The Age Of Innocence).
Silence is rather too long at 160 minutes, and the pace here is contemplative and slow at times. Scorsese directs with uncharacteristic restraint here, and the film lacks the free-wheeling energy he brought to The Wolf Of Wall Street. Nonetheless he still establishes an air of dread and growing horror as Rodrigues witnesses some brutal acts such as beheadings and gruesome tortures. The second half of the film is stronger and more compelling. Sitting through the film will prove a chore for many, and some scenes are indeed tough to watch and sit through.
The silence of the title refers to the seeming silence from God, who seems to be absent in the face of such relentless and ruthless persecution and the horrors that unfold. In some ways, Silence is a companion piece to Scorsese’s other religious themed films, but it will also remind audiences of films like Roland Joffe’s 1986 drama The Mission and Black Robe, as well as the classics from revered Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa. This period of Japanese history was also explored in depth in the epic 1980 mini-series Shogun, which was based on the novel by James Clavell.
The film looks superb thanks to some gorgeous and evocative widescreen cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. Although set in Japan, the film was actually shot in Taiwan due to financial arrangements. By all accounts it was a fairly gruelling shoot over 73 days. The $45 million budget can be seen on the screen though, with some impressive sets, production design from regular collaborator Dante Ferretti, and costumes that capture this feudal era.
For his part, Garfield brings a warmth, compassion and an earnest quality to his performance as Rodrigues who is shocked by what he witnesses. He disappears into the role, and his agony at times seems real. And ironically his character physically takes on a Jesus-like appearance. Driver lost weight to play Garrpe, and his gaunt look perfectly suits his tortured character. Neeson has little to do in what is basically an extended cameo, but he does bring gravitas to the role.
Silence is a beautiful piece of cinema, but it is also a disturbing and challenging film of limited appeal. It is also one of Scorsese’s least commercial films, and may struggle to find a broad audience.