REVIEW: Silence (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Paramount Pictures
Theatrical Release Poster – Paramount Pictures

The following is a review of Silence – Directed by Martin Scorsese

Based on the 1966 Japanese novel of the same name, legendary film director Martin Scorsese’s next historical epic Silence is a story about the limit to one’s faith for a priest in a foreign, strange, and Godless land. It takes place in the 17th Century and the film opens by showing intense punishment in Japan. Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) is witnessing Christians being tortured, and we soon learn that he eventually renounced his faith.

Ferreira had been a mentor to both Father Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (played by Adam Driver), and therefore they refuse to believe the news. Although Father Valignano (played by Ciarán Hinds) initially advises them not to, the two priests decide to travel to Japan to find Ferreira and spread Catholicism.

They are guided to a Christian Japanese village by an untrustworthy alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (played by Yosuke Kubozuka), and they are welcomed with open arms once they arrive. Soon the true nature of Christianity in Japan becomes clear to the two priests as Japanese officials – led by someone called ‘the Inquisitor’ (played by Issey Ogata) – stop by the village to torture and potentially kill some of the believers in the village. Soon the priests realize that the Japanese Christians are suffering because of them.

Every Martin Scorsese film automatically becomes one of the most anticipated films of any year for most, if not all, cinephiles. Indeed, while 2016 gave us the first Star Wars spin-off film, as well as multiple films with superheroes fighting against each other, Silence was always the film I was looking forward to the most. Sadly, because of the film’s Danish release date, I had to wait until late January 2017 to watch the film. But I do believe it was worth the wait.

However, it must’ve been weird for Scorsese to finally finish a project that he had, supposedly, wanted to make for decades. Passion projects are difficult, though. Sometimes passion projects become too personal. Sometimes these films only really make sense to the person who has been obsessed with the project for years. And while Silence isn’t inaccessible, it’s not an easy film to recommend.

You see, while Silence is hardly the first big American religious epic, I see it both as the most impressive and, yet, exhausting religious epic I’ve ever seen. It’s not difficult to explain how a Scorsese film is impressive. In Silence, Scorsese – one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time – once again works with Thelma Schoonmaker – the legendary film editor that Scorsese always collaborates with – and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who Scorsese had worked with on The Wolf of Wall Street. As we all expected, this is an impressive and well-crafted film. It’s just a gorgeous film and not just because of Prieto, the costume design is also impeccable, the acting is solid, and the themes it deals with are challenging, interesting, and, most importantly, just handled well.

Now you might think that the reason why Silence is exhausting is because of its daunting 161 minute runtime, but that definitely isn’t the case. It may automatically sound like a challenge to sit for almost three hours in a movie theater and watch 17th Century priests spread Catholicism, but I didn’t see it that way. Sure, you don’t want to watch this movie when you’re not paying attention or when you’re tired, but Silence is completely engrossing from start to finish even though it is deliberately paced. It’s not as energizing as The Departed, Goodfellas, or The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s not that kind of movie.

No, the exhausting thing about Silence is the punishment that pervades the film, as well as the difficult moral question at the center of it. Silence is gut-wrenching and, at times, exhaustingly beautiful in the punishment we see. The film includes one of the most beautifully tough scenes that you will ever see, in which Japanese Christians are attached to crosses on a beach and left to die from the violent rising tide. You wait for some divine intervention, but nothing can save the unlucky believers.

Until someone can, but it isn’t God that can save Christian Japanese from ultimate punishment. The priests are asked time and time again to renounce their faith and step on a ‘fumi-e’ (a carved image of Jesus Christ), and their reluctance to do so becomes the central problem here. What right do they have to let other people suffer because of their faith? And what would such an act mean to their connection with their religion?

Questions of hypocrisy, superiority, pride, and selfishness come to the forefront of the narrative and the film succeeds in branding the missionaries as something else than just two morally right followers of Christianity. And while the Inquisitor is cruel, an attempt is made to explain why he – and people like him – fear what outside influence could do to Japan and Japanese culture. I really liked this element of the film. I don’t think it is a preachy film – not at all – and most of the characters are rich and complex. The priests, for example, aren’t entirely likable.

Silence marks the first time Scorsese has worked with Andrew Garfield, who just got his first Oscar nomination for Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, and it went pretty well. His character carries the film and had he not worked for the film it would’ve fallen apart. I don’t think it’s his best performance yet, but he does a good job in Silence.

As do Adam Driver and Liam Neeson, even though neither of them are in the film for that long. Driver and Garfield’s Portuguese accents are problematic, and Driver’s accent here really didn’t work for me. I’m not actually sure whether or not Neeson actually did a Portuguese accent here, and maybe that’s why I particularly enjoyed his performance. But it may actually be the Japanese actors that you will remember the film for. Issey Ogata is great and captivating as the Inquisitor, and Yosuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro is both the most entertaining and painfully frustrating character in the film.

Martin Scorsese’s new religious epic is long but still riveting, tough to watch but nevertheless an amazing entry in his lengthy filmography. Silence is an exhausting and excellent experience that definitely had an impact on me. When I got home I could still feel the weight of the film sit in my chest. An almost indescribable emotional pressure.

All in all, Silence is a film you admire more than you love. It’s not something you’ll want to go through more than once, but you may feel like you need to. It is definitely not a perfect film, it isn’t easy to watch, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But it is a must-watch for cinephiles everywhere. All art is subjective, and I don’t think Silence will work for everyone. But for me, this is a brutal and astonishing triumph in filmmaking.

9.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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