Movie Review: Silence.
Martin Scorsese’s passion project is technically flawless but lacks the depth to make it truly exceptional.
I had been waiting less-than patiently for Silence since well before its December 2016 limited release. Every week a few more screens would be added, but never close enough to drive out and see it. The film has never seemed to gain the popular acclaim you would expect from a Martin Scorsese project. You would think a new film from the man behind iconic films such as Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Goodfellas would drive people to theaters in droves. In reality, this film has done pretty poorly at the box office, despite a strong critical reception. Having seen it myself, I can suspect why.
Silence is a gorgeously shot film featuring a fine cast. It has been painstakingly developed from an award winning novel over the course of 25 years. It tells a harrowing story about two priests searching for their mentor in a country that hates and persecutes Christian missionaries. All the pieces are there for a wonderful film. Unfortunately, Silence offers very few surprises and feels superficial in the philosophical questions it poses. Students of film-making will be enraptured, but people looking for a story with intellectual depth will find themselves adrift.
In the mid 1600’s, Japan has outlawed Christian practices and ejected or killed many of the European missionaries in the country. Two young Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) receive a troubling report that their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson,) has renounced his faith publicly in Japan before going missing. They hire an unreliable guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobuzuka) and slip into the country, traveling from one hidden enclave of Christians to the next, hoping to find their spiritual leader before the government’s Inquisitor finds them first.
The Master’s Techniques.
Martin Scorsese has not lost a step when it comes to the technical execution of a film. The movie features beautifully composed shots that work with light and shadow to reveal and obscure elements wonderfully. The sound work is striking, often relying on ambient noises that fade or intensify to match the scene. Scorsese gets some tremendous performances out of his cast, and the eye for costume and personal detail is flawless. The pacing is managed very well for a 3 hour movie (that was cut down from even longer!) The denouement of the action feels like it probably suffered the most from the cuts, but the film neither rushes nor plods, and feels just about right. On a level of technique, this film is a masterwork of the kind students at NYU will study for years.
Speaking of performances, I was struck by how the strongest portrayals came from the least expected places. I initially suspected Adam Driver would be the more compelling member of the young duo, but his role is rather minimal. Andrew Garfield is impressive, especially in his narration, and conveys his inner turmoil convincingly. Liam Neeson is fine. Not a break-out role, but solid. It ends up being the Japanese cast who steal the show.
Kubozuka’s Kichijiro is a flawed and troubled creature, constantly abandoning our priests before slinking back to beg forgiveness. It’s a thankless role, and Kubozuka manages to finally win your sympathy with his performance, even if you despise his character’s cowardice. Issey Ogata makes the Inquisitor into a fascinating “villain”, for lack of a better term: a calculating and solicitous man who coaxes his opponents into errors before pouncing with an iron fist.
His right hand man, played by Tadanobu Asano, was my favorite character. He is casual and almost flippant, easily crushing Garfield’s fumbling theological arguments all while presenting a friendly demeanor. As the “good cop” he’s completely ingratiating, and his ruthless nature makes him into one charming devil.
Introduction to Theology.
As fine as the performances were, it is the substance of the struggle between Garfield and the Inquisitor that hardened my reservations about recommending this film. Their sparring is rather sophomoric. This does not seem to be a fully fleshed battle of minds between a trained Jesuit and a high ranking official skilled in argument. Each point they make is facile and would be easily rebutted by a freshman divinity student. Early on, Garfield refuses to even argue his case, insisting they just get on with the torture. What? He was so damn hot to trot to “make disciples of every nation” and yet refuses to even throw out some canned theology at his accusers?
At the end of the day, the only important aspect of the persecution of the Christians is the persecution itself. The Japanese officials openly admit they don’t care what you believe as long as you step on the picture of Jesus in public. Garfield doesn’t seem to care about planting his philosophical flag, instead seeming eager to see if he can stand up to a good old fashioned torturing like his Savior did. In the first scene we learn that the priests, being boiled alive and scalded on crosses at a hot springs, ASKED to be tortured, all to prove their mettle. This was a suicide mission taken by masochists and not evangelists, apparently. We’re not getting a metaphysical struggle here, merely a physical one.
Suffering Upon the Cross.
For this reason, the climax and the resolution feel cheapened. There’s not enough subtext to the final choice, and it is has a voice over that strips it of any ambiguity. Even the very last shot, which lingers, is contrived to strip the “meaning” of the story of any subversive ambivalence. There’s a surface level to this film, but no basement or attic. If you were hoping for Scorsese to explore alternate avenues of Christianity as he did in The Last Temptation of Christ, you’re not going to get that here.
When Garfield’s character concludes, after a sloppy argument, that Japan is simply a swamp that cannot support the roots of Christianity, his captors readily agree. It’s a very colonial notion of a degenerate nation that cannot grasp the Western enlightenment, even coming from author Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese citizen.
Talking about his fascination with Endo’s novel and his quest to see it made, Scorsese seems to wax philosophical about the search for deeper meaning inside a secular culture. If the film seeks to explore how a religious minority finds sustenance and meaning inside a hostile culture, it does so in a rather unsubtle manner.
A single sided narrative, even when based on historical happenings, doesn’t really advance the dialogue. There is no real discussion of the silence Garfield hears for most of the film from his God. It simply adds to his redemptive suffering. His doubts end up just becoming a passing problem, and even they are flung away by the narrative for effect.
In the end, Silence can be recommended to students looking to see technical film making at the highest level. Beyond that, I can’t say that this film has enough substance to reach a wider audience. The film appears to have an intended message which is rather simple, it is articulated in a straightforward manner, and it fails to resonate deeply. The film comes across as a pat affirmation of the faith, and hopes that watching Garfield suffer at the hands of his tormentors will be enough to compel your interest. It worked for The Passion of the Christ, I suppose.