Review: Silence

How do you follow up The Wolf of Wall Street? If you’re Martin Scorsese, you indulge in a passion project (no pun intended) about Jesuit priests visiting Japan in the 1600s, where Christianity is outlawed and believers are tortured. A brooding, amazingly-shot drama, this is nevertheless not one I think I’ll rewatch, due to its slow pace and meandering story.

Portuguese Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) demand to be sent to Japan, where their mentor Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson) is said to have renounced Christianity, while Japanese authorities torture and murder Christians. On their travels, the two face myriad challenges to their faith and humanity, largely from Japanese inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), who finds new ways to force believers to the surface and forsake their god.

A brooding tension simmers over the film, which starts as both interesting and gripping, but as the plot meanders and focuses on Rodrigues, I felt my attention slip. Nevertheless, when Scorsese wants you to feel tense, he knows how. Torture scenes are shot like brutal nature documentaries (crashing waves, buzzing jungles and volcanic pools married with mock crucifixions, drowning, scalding and more), and the excruciating, barbaric practices are grimly shown off. His mastery with dialogue remains strong too, creating more tension with a conversation than some thrillers. He also restrains himself from delivering his standard camera swoops and switches,  a pleasant surprise and much appreciated in regard to the subject matter. The sound design is also integral in building the creeping tension, with crickets and insect noises beside abrupt silences acting like punctuation.

The music from Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge plays expertly into this too, almost indistinct but edging in with forboding drums, alongside well-timed choral sections that chill. If you’re not a fan of any level of movie violence, specifically torture, be aware the film centres on such scenes, which are often grimly effective. Taiwan stands in for Japan, and the ethereal, misty hills and forests evoke the mystery and inscrutable culture of the Japanese at the time, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deserving recognition for the way he films and captures the colours, shades and textures.

The movie gives a very nuanced view of Japanese culture, another plus given it could have been judged through a western prism by a lesser director. The inquisitors’ conduct seems ridiculous, coming from a peaceful Buddhist perspective, but well-written dialogue from Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks presents the inner conflicts and hypocrisies, contrasting the Japanese’ cultural excuse for their actions with the European missionaries trying to reinstate their imposed belief system. As an atheist, both perspectives infuriated me morally (which might have been the point Scorsese is trying to make), specifically the priests’ lack of action to save the believers.mv5bmjy3otk0nja2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntg3mjc2mdi-_v1_uy1200_cr6906301200_al_

Their indifference (while later addressed) made their individual plights worthless, as in valuing other peoples’ lives as less (despite having obvious emotional reactions), so I did theirs. The extremes the Japanese Christians face are disturbing, and the cool indifference of the inquisitors reminds of barbaric acts the Japanese became infamous for last century. This all feeds into the characterisation, because the plight of the Christians was far more interesting contrasted to the morality of those simply there to “spread the word”.

Viewers with faith will no doubt see the film differently, and that’s perhaps one of its strengths, in that it offers hope to those who might struggle with their own beliefs or who feel that they can’t express theirs openly. Neeson’s Ferrera proves to be a far more interesting and complex embodiment of the limits of faith than Rodrigues, but the meandering pace means we don’t see Ferrera until the conclusion, and at two hours and 40 minutes, it’s not that the film isn’t good – it really is very well-made and thought out – but it was too long, and not focused enough, becoming unfortunately boring at times.

Andrew Garfield is unmistakably the lead here, and Rodrigues unfortunately is a mixed bag. The actor is very good at times, but hammy at others (particularly emotional scenes), and to be quite frank I was sick of the character after a while. Garfield tries his best, but he can’t hold your attention like other actors (say DiCaprio) could in the role. I liked Driver’s Garrpe, all gangly unease and strident opinions, and the film loses a lot when he takes a back seat. Issey Ogata as the head inquisitor offers a bizarre and hilarious performance – a softly spoken but sadistic and frightening man, almost comical one second and exuding menace the next, and the actor’s monologues do much to make the audience see the character’s inherent hypocrisy.

Tadanobu Asano is excellent as the inquisitor’s interpreter, an interesting and important role feeding Rodrigues with doubt and confusion, and fills in the blanks by shining an often comedic light on the culture. The exact same can be said for the slimy Yōsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro – a tragi-comic character, haunted by his sins and a constant need to be absolved, the actor deftly switches from grieving victim to laughing stock. Neeson bookends the movie, bringing his haunted visage and booming voice as Ferrera, and serving as a symbol of the dichotomy between faith and self-preservation: I would have liked to see more of him really. The supporting cast of Japanese actors and actresses are worth mentioning as well, as they selflessly depict the persecuted Christians with dignity, as well as their suffering in sometimes uncomfortable detail.

Silence is a thoughtful, interesting movie – and clearly something Scorsese wanted to provoke discussion with. It’s filled with musings on faith, how we question it and the differences we all share. Despite this intellectual (and historic) nature, as a  film it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, the long running time, glacial pace and unengaging lead character letting it down.

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