Directed by Martin Scorsese Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Liam Neeson
Film Review by Kieran Freemtantle
The religious historical drama Silence was a passion project for the legendary director Martin Scorsese, taking 25 years for it to be made; it has received critical plaudits. Despite this acclaim and the talent involved, Silence ends up being one of Scorsese's dullest films.
In the 17th Century Catholic priests and their followers are being persecuted in Japan and have been driven underground. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) was a priest who was tortured during the inquisition and rumoured to have denounced his faith. Two of his former students, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) do not believe what they hear and go to Japan to find their teacher and prove his innocence. When they arrive in the alien country they become the only two priests in Japan and become the spiritual focal point for the nation's Christians whilst they hide from the authorities.
Silence is considered the third part of Scorsese’s unofficial religious trilogy and is one of two religiously themed films that Andrew Garfield stars in (the other being Hacksaw Ridge). As expected Silence is thick with Christian image and metaphor as priests and their followers suffer for their faith with the inquisitors distorting Christian beliefs, getting tied to crosses and being tortured in elaborate ways as they are forced to reject God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Whilst in one scene a character betrays the priests and is given silver coins which had obvious Biblical connotations. Silence has a striking opening of priests being 'baptised' with boiling hot spring water and being tied to the cross, refusing to submit. It carries on in this vein and characters do comment on the parallels between the trials of Jesus and the suffering the Japanese Christians undergo. As anyone who knows their history can see, the similarities between the suppression the Japanese Christians suffered is similar to other religious minority groups - from Catholics in 16th and 17th England, the Huguenots in France, Christians in the Roman Empire, and the Jews in Europe.
Despite these striking visuals and the rich material of the religious suppression, Scorsese somehow made Silence as boring as possible, turning a film about torture, turmoil and religious doubt into a tedious collection of theological debates. He was channelling his inner Terrence Malick and his divisive Tree of Life where audiences were split between thinking the film was an art-house masterpiece and pretentious twaddle. There is no question that Scorsese is one of the best directors around, but with Silence he is deliberately at his most subdued - this is a film where people are drowned, scolded and buried alive and somehow it's dull and not engaging. It is understandable that Scorsese wanted to make a more sedate film because of the spiritual themes but the drama can still be dialled up.
It is easy to argue that Scorsese was trying to understate the torture because it was routine for both the persecutors and the victims but the film is being seen through Rodrigues and Garrpe's eyes: they are outsiders to this world, it's an extreme to them. There should have been more shock when they see the violence and how Christian stoically face these trials. It was the opposite extreme to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ which relished every blow - Silence’s treatment of the torture should have been somewhere between the two. The inquisitors are also absolutely sadistic, finding ways to prolong their victim’s suffering and even if they renounce their religion their suffering is prolonged to break other believers.
Scorsese is more successful with the technical aspects of the film - mainly the cinematography and art direction. Taiwan doubled for Japan and that island's mountainous landscape serves as a perfect substitution for the Land of the Rising Sun. The sets for Japan, from small villages to 17th century Nagasaki, were brilliantly recreated. There was a contrast between the extremely poor village where people are living in rags and the priests can only operate at the dead of night, whilst the people in Nagasaki were dressed in expensive period dress. Scorsese doesn't sugar-coat the setting - as well as the tortures the peasants face, their lives are incredibly hard and there are great small details, like the peasants having crooked, yellow teeth, something most historical films ignore.
The basic plot is similar to the novel Heart of Darkness, which was the basis for Apocalypse Now. All three are about someone going into a dark mysterious land to find someone who has gone rogue and believed to have gone native. Apocalypse Now was a war film so had more action but Silence could have had more drive to it, some urgency. When Rodrigues and Garrpe enter Japan they become the only priests in the country and they had a mission to keep the faith alive in the Land of the Rising Sun.
When Rodrigues and Garrpe enter Japan there is an obvious culture shock but there should have been an emphasis on how Japanese villagers interpreted the gospel and how Japanese and Christian ideas would have mixed. It would have added weight to Ferreira, when he is properly introduced, and given his arguments more weight.
Garfield was the main man in the film - his character was the one with the biggest crisis of faith, wondering how the Japanese Christian could endure such hardships and stay loyal to the religion. Yet the religion does make a virtue out of suffering. Garfield's Rodrigues constantly narrates his inner doubts but when he faces the inquisitors himself he refuses to give in: what he thinks and how he acts are very different. His compassion was never in doubt but his faith was put to the test.
Driver's Garrpe is more pessimistic and advocated a more cautious policy and their early actions in Japan are mired by their moral and personal arguing. It is great to see Liam Neeson move away from his recent action stardom and work again with a celebrated director.
Silence can be describe as being easier to admire than enjoy. The technical acumen is there and Garfield gives an excellent performance in the central role but Silence is a film that requires the patience of a saint.