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