ARE YOU NOT TALKING TO ME?
Review by Paul Preston
Silence, the latest film from Martin Scorsese couldn’t be more of a one-eighty from his previous effort, The Wolf of Wall Street. The usually kinetic filmmaking style on display in Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and Cape Fear went into hyper-overdrive in Wolf. There was enough energy and chaos in that film to fill any other director’s entire movie catalog. There could only be a downturn in disorder going into Scorsese’s next film. Silence is that massive energy shift, a pensive, meditative account of monks in 17th Century Japan.
Spanish monks Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) go to Japan to search for their mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing. 1600s Japan is a feudal Buddhist state that punishes by torture and death those who practice Christianity. Upon their arrival, the monks are greeted by the faithful Christians of Japan and hidden away. They hold mass for the locals and provide confession for the sailor who brought them to Japan as the local Inquisitor and his armies flood the villages, rounding up those thought to be believers.
What the Japanese government wants is public defamation by Christians of their Christ, displayed in a ritual where the pious must step on a rudimentary plaque with Jesus’ picture on it. The Inquisitor doesn’t even care what people believe, as long as it’s not what Japan has made illegal. Failure to complete this shaming which shakes the core foundation of the Christian belief leads to all manner of torment and, if they never relent, gruesome death.
This is not Sunday-fellowship-with-coffee Christianity, Scorsese’s faith is only made devout through suffering. You will not leave Silence feeling like God is good, he is with you and everything is fine (Rodrigues wonders where God is as he is put through the ultimate tests). Instead, the film sets you up to question just how committed to your faith you can be. Are you strolling through your Christianity as a label, or are you truly devoted to your faith? In the end, the monks’ salvation can only go through Christ, who continues to sacrifice for humanity. A sacrifice that you can read about, see in a movie or hear in a sermon, but never truly comprehend. Scorsese’s wrestle with this is the core of the film and it’s depicted as only a master of cinema can relay it.
As Rodrigues goes through the unthinkable to test his faith, we as the audience are put through the same test. The relentlessness is palpable and at two hours and forty minutes, you might be looking for some respite, too. The conversations are lofty ones about the nature of religion and the punishment doled out by the feudal masters isn’t hurried and isn’t pleasant.
Silence has been on Scorsese’s radar since he completed 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. That is certainly an effective, radical and exciting film, but the Peter Gabriel score and Judas’ Brooklyn accent brought shades of the present to the movie. Silence is enveloped in time and place, rendering it hauntingly authentic and damn near otherworldly. Japan is portrayed as so primal and bound by extremist codes that it seems like a land from some violent sci-fi novel. Rodrigo Pietro’s Oscar-nominated cinematography greatly helps this, making the terrain larger than life, often soaked in mist.
It’s easy to forget after two Spider-Man movies that Andrew Garfield was excellent in The Social Network. Silence and Hacksaw Ridge remind us he’s a young actor of real depth and his struggle with faith is visceral in every scene. Adam Driver continues a string of finding himself in projects with some of the most interesting directors out there like Jeff Nichols, Noah Baumbach and now Mahty, and Neeson’s portrayal of Ferreira is a heartbreaker.
The late-in-awards season release of Silence didn’t translate into Oscar nominations, as it did with The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a shame because more discerning eyes should see this. Scorsese, like Eastwood and Ridley Scott, continues to churn out great works late in his career, but unlike anyone else, Scorsese’s take is decidedly adult, risky, shrewd and confident as hell.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: January 13, 2017
Run Time: 161 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures