Silence (2016)

Sometimes silence is the deadliest sound

Despite his prominent career behind the lens, Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese has been known to produce duds from time to time — remember Shutter Island (2010), I shudder at the thought of that one. Well, I’m saddened to report, then, that Scorsese’s long-awaited passion project, Silence — a film apparently three decades in the making — is a sheer disappointment and a downright bore, its testing, overlong runtime crucifying any of the movie’s visual or narrative virtues, Silence far too pretentious, self-indulgent and preachy to register — and this coming from a actual Catholic. To put it into context, the film’s star, Andrew Garfield, doesn’t share a single scene with co-star Liam Neeson until two hours into the film, two fricken hours! Which raises the ‘almighty’ question: did Silence need to be so, so, so long?

The 74-year-old filmmaker’s third religion-based picture — following Kundun (1997) and, before then, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) — Silence, an adaptation of the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel of the same name, trails Portuguese Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), two young 17-century Jesuit priests who travel across the sea, from Macao, Portugal, all the way to Nagasaki, Japan, in order to locate their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). What triggers this search, however, is word of Father Ferreira apostatizing the faith, eyewitnesses claiming that the Holy man had renounced Christianity and was now living off the land as a native. To prove these rumors untrue, Rodrigues and Garupe venture to an inhospitable Japan, where they also plan to secretly spread the message of God to the countless Catholic Christian villagers in hiding, this at a time when propagating Roman Catholicism, and practicing its many sacraments, was outlawed, and those caught performing or partaking in the faith faced severe persecution from a man known simply as ‘The Inquisitor.’ So, in nerd-speak, Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Driver) teams up with web-slinger Spider-Man (Garfield) to track down fallen Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson)!

'Oh please Lord, let it end.'
‘Oh please Lord, let it end.’

Despite its basic premise sounding like a goofy Marvel-Star Wars mash-up (both properties owned by Disney), Silence dares to tell a punishingly brutal yet soul-stirring story, one that attempts to examine some weighty internal conflicts, the narrative taking place in a period of extreme religious oppression, the fearful Japanese government afraid of Western civilizations, and their many practices, influencing its people — think cultural imperialism. Given the hostile landscape, our brave missionaries — two men of the church who willingly chose to defy Japan’s country-wide ban on Christianity — are burdened with a handful of direful choices, chiefly whether one should adhere to their own sacred vows and traditions over doing what is ethically and morally right. Exploring heady themes of spirituality, suffering, betrayal and forgiveness, Silence could’ve been a powerfully contemplative feature if it weren’t so monotonously dull, this due, part and parcel, to the movie’s preposterous length, the flick clocking in at a whopping two-and-a-half hours plus — look, I don’t know about you, but for a film predominantly focused on physical and psychological torture, a close to 3-hour runtime feels overly excessive.

Written for the screen by Scorsese and Jay Cocks — who penned the script for Marty’s Gangs of New York (2002) — Silence also endeavors to survey the nature of God, its title alluding to the question of ‘silence,’ and why God chooses to remain voiceless in the face of human hurt and hardship, this bringing about uncertainty and doubt for protagonist Rodrigues, who ultimately learns that the love of his Lord and Savior is more mysterious and unfathomable that he had ever thought possible. While all these ideas are ‘well and good,’ the admirable intentions of filmmakers are swallowed up by, guess what, the movie’s runtime. Sure, some may consider this snoozefest to be ‘transfixing,’ but Scorsese’s unyielding lack of restraint truly hauls the whole thing down, Silence way too minimalist, narrative wise, given its absurd length, the film littered with endless scenes of disheveled men staring at one another or aimless wandering. Remember Scorsese’s excellent The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)? Well, that was long, too, but it was flashier and snappier, its untamed freewheeling energy easing the load of its 180-minute duration.

'When God summons, you follow.'
‘When God summons, you follow.’

To give an example, as a lover of film, I tend to watch movies and television shows (both at home and in the cinema) without d**king around on my smartphone — I pause things if I need to reply to a message or whatnot. But while viewing Silence, I felt the urge to whip out my phone, not once, but twice — the first instance to check how long I’d been perched in my seat for (and only 50 minutes had passed), and the second out of restless frustration! Look, given the talent of Scorsese and co., I’m sure there’s a good, possibly even great, cut of Silence in amongst the sluggishness, but this grueling ‘theatrical’ version certainly ain’t it. Which leads me to my next query: who is Silence actually made for? I don’t know — God-fearing folk or perhaps Scorsese himself? With limited mainstream appeal, it’s a wonder the film was made at all, even if it did take 30 odd years to get off the ground, the project seemingly in development since the early 1990s.

But, hey, seeing as Silence was an all-consuming, decade-long quest for Scorsese, he at least gets some things right. With Taiwan standing in for early Edo period Japan (the bulk of the narrative occurring between 1640 to ’43), the prolific filmmaker brings the feudal era to life in a beautifully detailed manner, the movie dripping with haunting Catholic iconography (particularly the crucifixion, a symbol that represents both hope and anguish). Venturing from serene misty mountaintops — Rodrigues and Garupe taking refuge in a secluded ramshackle charcoal hut when first arriving in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ — to the fictional Tomogi Village — an impoverished countryside dwelling shrouded by dense greenery and steeped in mud sodden clearings, this abode home to a devout commune of renegade Japanese Catholics — Silence transports our clergymen to a number of stunning locations, the film eventually finding its way to the unforgiving prison cells of Nagasaki. Here, viewers witness, first hand, the unspeakable horrors endured by a myriad of Holy men (and women), these folk remaining captive until publicly denouncing Christ and all of his teachings, an act achieved by trampling on a coarsely carved image of Jesus (otherwise known as a fumi-e), which symbolized outright rejection. With cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Argo (2012), working alongside esteemed production designer Dante Ferretti, Hugo (2011), Silence looks heavenly — it’s moody, atmospheric and, at times, even ethereal — but as the age-old saying goes, looks fade, especially when they’re hauled down by stodgy pacing and tedious scenes of ‘nothingness,’ these hindrances inadvertently sabotaging all of the film’s tragic allure.

The tide is high but I'm holdin' on ...
The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on …

With Scorsese providing an emotional springboard for his gifted cast, both Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, Paterson (2016), deliver impressive performances, even if the film itself is too long-winded and wearisome. Coming off Mel Gibson’s biographical war drama, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) — another faith-themed picture — Garfield paints the idealistic Rodrigues (a character loosely modeled on an Italian priest named Giuseppe Chiara) in a fierce and passionate manner. Conveying feelings of love, pity, confusion and sincere humility, the 33-year-old renders the many shades of this man of the cloth in a genuinely humble way, this Holy crusader (whose constantly comparing his own journey with that of the Christ) wrestling with a multitude of profound convictions and reservations, particularly how to live out a meaningful, purpose-driven life. Likewise, Adam Driver’s turn as the layered Father Garupe is equally as earnest, the brooding star grafting a rougher, more ‘insecure’ counterpart to Garfield’s steady Rodrigues, Garupe less steadfast in his beliefs and theological resolve — sadly, Driver’s well-rendered evangelist is MIA for a majority of the story. Elsewhere, Liam Neeson gives it his all as lapsed Catholic, Father Ferreira, the celebrated Irish actor making up for those generic post-Taken actioneers with his solid portrayal of the broken padre, one who’s burdened by deep grief and sorrow.

In terms of antagonists, Yōsuke Kubozuka, Go (2001), is credible as deceitful wrench Kichijiro, the film’s Judas-type figure. A former Christian turned alcoholic fisherman, Kichijiro, having previously recanted his faith before fleeing Japan, functions as a guide for Rodrigues and Garupe as they trek through the hostile foreign terrain, the 37-year-old Eastern star crafting a man so loathsome and detestable that he’s deemed unworthy of the tag ‘evil’ — and this coming from Father Rodrigues. Complete with a loony exterior and a sinister lisping voice, Issey Ogata, Yi Yi (2000), plays Inoue Masashige, aka The Inquisitor, an elderly Japanese Samurai who scours the province in search for sheltered Catholics and pastors, rewarding those with information bags of silver. Alas, while intimidating — in a Judge Doom from Who Framed Rodger Rabbit (1988) kinda way — a ridiculous (semi-laughable) scene that sees this xenophobic tyrant ‘deflate’ like a punctured balloon unintentionally pacifies some of his menace. Lastly, Ciarán Hinds, Munich (2005), shows up for a minute or so in thankless role as Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano, the guy who delivers the distressing news of Father Ferreira’s alleged apostasy.

Let Us Pray
Let Us Pray

In spite of its many merits and praise-worthy attributes, sitting through Silence can be likened to watching a painting dry — it lasts forever and a day, and, regardless of a work’s visible beauty or artistic genius, the act of endless gazing gets pretty boring, pretty fast — the film, an exasperating endurance exercise that’s not likely to inspire repeat viewing. But look, it seems as though I’m going against the grain here, the yawn-inducing Silence currently holding an 84% Certified Fresh rating on the Tomato Meter. So, if you’re slightly interested in Scorsese’s labor of love, for whatever reason(s), I’d say check the flick out for yourself, you might enjoy it more than I did, Silence likely to resonant harder with pious persons of strong faith over non-believers. Either way, my sincere condolences to anyone who purchases a ticket: this one’s a slog!

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by S-Littner

Silence is released through Transmission Films Australia