Silence Review

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

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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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The Anatomy of a Scene – Goodfellas’ Copacabana

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The Copacabana sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is an iconic moment within the canon of popular cinema. For a scene so short and simple in its execution, its continued appeal is a testament to Scorsese’s genius, perhaps his greatest collaboration with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus. Indeed, twenty-six years later, new innovations have saturated the film industry with technically impressive camera work, yet the Cobacabana sequence remains revered; only around three minutes in length, it is often cited as a masterwork of cinematography and storytelling.

Single-take sequences are fast becoming a staple of mainstream cinema. In 2015, the commercially successful films Spectre, Creed, and The Revenant all featured extended scenes shot in what appeared to be solitary, unbroken takes (although often stitched together in post-production). Two years ago, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar winning comedy, Birdman, seemed to be entirely comprised of one continuous shot. Considering the prevalence of the Steadicam in modern multiplexes, what is it that makes Goodfellas worth coming back to after all this time?

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In essence, Scorsese uses his camera to tell a story. Technical showmanship should never be employed for its own sake; the camera exists in support of the narrative, and nowhere is this clearer than in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. As the camera weaves behind our two protagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), we follow their journey into another world. For Henry, it is a familiar one; he moves confidently and with ease, echoed by the smooth tracking of the camera behind him – our gaze never breaks away as one life transitions into another. Karen’s experience is altogether less assured – it is her first introduction to Henry and the unconventional life he leads. Much like the hubbub of the Copa’s kitchen, the shot is an assault on the senses, taking in exteriors, corridors, a kitchen, a dining room, and finally a table right next to the stage. In a film that enjoys feeding us a near-constant voice-over, this single shot tells us all we need to know without saying a word.

Of course, it would be a crime not to consider the technical achievement of the shot. The whole sequence, in all its complexity, was blocked, lit, and shot in half a day. Steadicam operator Larry McConkey has explained the difficulty he faced in blending close and wide shots within such a tight frame – it was this issue that necessitated the brief moments of interaction between Ray Liotta and the others in the hallway. Later, when Henry and Karen take a turn through the kitchen, they actually walk in an extended circle and exit through the same way they came in, which is hidden through well-timed changes in extras and scenery dressing. Michael Ballhaus discussed the struggle he faced in ensuring that every actor and movement was timed perfectly for the duration of the shot. Yet after only eight takes, cinema history had been made.

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Scorsese returns to screens this year with the long awaited Silence, but it remains my opinion that Goodfellas represents his best work. The Copacabana shot demonstrates that a story may be told just as effectively through action as with words or dialogue. It has always been my belief that Thelma Schoonmaker’s distinctive editing has had much to do with the iconography of Martin Scorsese’s films, but Goodfellas shows just how effective he can be without a single cut.