Silence Review

Simultaneously pensive and abrasive, Silence is an uncompromising and richly rewarding tour of the human condition.

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silence1
Liam Neeson as the enigmatic Father Ferreira. Copyright 2016 Paramount Pictures.

The latest film from director Martin Scorsese, Silence, begins with a relatively simple premise. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Japanese government has outlawed Christianity and instigated a purge of all Christian influence. News reaches Europe that an experienced Jesuit priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been subjected to torture and forced to apostatise. Fearing for their mentor’s soul, two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), risk their lives and make the journey to Japan, determined to discover the truth. What follows is a dark and thoughtful tale of religious persecution and personal determination. It’s a film to be endured more than enjoyed, an immersive assault on the senses that reaches to the most innate of human longings; the desire to amount to something greater than oneself. Silence is unflinching in its brutality and bold in its ideas – and it’s unmissable.

It should come as little surprise that Martin Scorsese had hoped to join the priesthood before he found his true calling as a film maker. Themes of religious devotion and doubt run throughout the director’s expansive body of work, from his feature-length debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), to his Oscar winning crime-caper, The Departed (2006). While most of these films relegated religion to their subtext, Scorsese’s controversial biopics The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) were audacious in addressing the complexities and contradictions of spiritual belief. In much the same vein, Silence arrives as a methodical meditation on what it means to hold faith, and how it can possibly be reconciled with the reality of human suffering.

Silence is unflinching in its brutality and bold in its ideas

Andrew Garfield takes centre-stage with a convincing performance as Father Rodrigues, a complex role on which much of the film hinges. Rodrigues is a character who appears outwardly impenetrable, defined by his fanatical devotion to God’s word, but his internal monologues provide an insight into a fractured mind, full of doubts and desires. Likewise, Garfield instils the character with a growing vulnerability as the events unfold, making for a sympathetic protagonist despite his questionable philosophy. From the Japanese cast, Issei Ogata regularly steals the show as a fearsome local inquisitor, providing an effectively sinister riposte to the Christian devotion of the Jesuits and their followers.

Visually, Silence owes a clear debt to the work of Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, bringing to mind the colourful vistas of Ran (1985) and the rain soaked bogs of Seven Samurai (1954). To this end, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has delivered a beautiful and visceral depiction of seventeenth century Japan. Sitting in the audience, it’s as if one can feel the mud soaking into their pores and the heat beating down upon them. Meanwhile, Scorsese has largely dispensed of his usually stylised directorial technique, opting for a flatter approach that emphasises the story and characters over visual indulgences. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is similarly restrained, and the result is a film that fully immerses the viewer into its world, refusing to let go until the final moments. It’s exhausting, but the story has enough weight to feel worthy of such a treatment.

Delivers a beautiful and visceral depiction of seventeenth century Japan

Scorsese makes little effort to examine the wider, historical implications of his subject matter – the root causes of the persecution, for example, are only briefly alluded to. Instead, Silence uses it’s setting to deal with broad themes of faith, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness. It posits questions on the endurance of the human spirit and how far one will go for what they believe in. These struggles are represented through the personal trials of Garfield’s Rodrigues, culminating in a harrowing final act which treads similar ground to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), or even George Orwell’s 1984. As the protagonist tries to cling desperately to his own idea of the truth, his world view is both brutally and casually eroded before him.

The result of a decades-long labour of love, Silence feels like Scorsese’s final word on a subject he holds dear. Indeed, for all its pontificating, the film acts as a conversation rather than a sermon; one is invited to ponder and explore its mysteries, while definite answers are rarely suggested. It’s easy just to marvel at its beauty, but Silence should be digested and discussed. At times it might feel like hard work, but this is cinema at its most rewarding; a meaty treat of a film, both technically and philosophically. In the commodified atmosphere of today’s movie industry, it’s a relief to see Scorsese dedicate himself to a project so personal and affecting. With a career stretching back half a century, he remains one of the screen’s greatest craftsmen.

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Life on Film – Tokyo Story and Boyhood

Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story (1953)

I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) for the first time. It’s an interesting and quite slow paced portrayal of life in post-war Japan, telling the story of an elderly couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. Although there’s little in the way of plot, the film masterfully contrasts the hurried indifference of a new generation with that of the old Japan – through the experience of a single family, Ozu captures a moment of transition for all of Japanese society.

While watching the film, I found myself drawing comparison to a much more recent picture; Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period, Boyhood chronicles over a decade in the life of a single boy, from elementary school to university. While the backdrop of these two films would struggle to be more different, both Boyhood and Tokyo Story attempt to capture and portray life as it truly happens, without a strictly structured plot or the usual embellishments of cinema – they simply provide a snapshot of the human experience. The two films were also critically acclaimed; Tokyo Story was rated as the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors’ poll, while Boyhood has the rare honour of a perfect 100 score on metacritic.

Despite the acclaim, Boyhood is a film I have never been able to get behind – on both of my viewings I’ve found myself achingly bored. I’ll accept that my opinion resides within the minority, but Boyhood is an interminably dull tale of very normal things happening to a slim selection of non-characters. What’s more, every shot is framed in a flat, televisual style which, as far as I can see, is devoid of any real craft or cinematic value. As a result, it’s difficult to engage with the film on either a technical or an emotional level, and I find myself longing for an injection of melodrama. Indeed, my criticisms of Boyhood were only accentuated by the achievements of Tokyo Story.

Byhood
Boyhood (2014)

The essential success of Tokyo Story is that Ozu is able to take life and make it worth watching. Although the film is heavy on dialogue, it’s always staged in a visually interesting manner, disposing of the typical shot-reverse-shot approach and confidently breaking the 180-degree rule to bring the audience closer. Moreover, it consistently feels like the events on screen, no matter how mundane, have a point to them; the characters and their separate stories all contribute to an understanding of Japanese society as a whole, giving you something palpable to take away from the experience. The existence of this over-arching narrative means that Ozu’s social-realist approach is anchored to a story that is worth telling.

Boyhood, on the other hand, fails to be anything more than a series of events occurring, and the result is a film that’s crushingly dull. It may have taken twelve years to make (and the advertising wouldn’t let you forget it), but I fail to see how this contributes anything when the aging characters are such uninteresting husks. Admittedly, Linklater’s long production time is a technical triumph, allowing the audience to experience the passage of time in a way that feels tangible, but it’s impact is hollow against a script that is devoid of genuine drama or effective character development.

In recording reality, Linklater appears to have forgotten the essential truth that most people go to cinema to escape the depressing reality of life, not watch it unfold over an excruciating two-hour-forty-minute period. Of course, a realist approach can be a powerful storytelling tool, ably illustrated by Tokyo Story, but Boyhood has none of the artistic weight or social commentary that makes Ozu’s film so valuable. Much like the visual effects of today’s comic-book sequels, the realism of Boyhood is undeniably impressive, presenting life itself with a plainness rarely seen. Underneath, however, there simply isn’t enough substance to justify the feverish praise with which the film was lavished.

At least that’s what I think.