Over the past decade, acclaimed director Martin Scorsese has lent more towards bombast and melodrama in his films. That isn’t meant as a criticism – ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013) is an anarchic marvel and ‘Shutter Island’ (2010) one of the most accomplished thrillers so far this century. With his latest film however, the legendary filmmaker turns his gaze inward, diving once again into the quiet storm of the human soul. A long-gestating passion project for Scorsese, ‘Silence’ carefully meditates on faith and religion across a vast, cinematic canvas, the kind of which we very rarely see anymore.
Based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endōhe, ‘Silence’ follows two Jesuit priests in the 17th century, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel in secret from Spain to Japan to find lost priest Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who they fear has renounced his faith. Japan is in a state of war against the spread of Catholicism, resulting in the persecution and execution of priests and their congregations. Walking into ultimate danger, Rodrigues and Garupe find their faith put to the test, both by the ideals of a country who fundamentally rejects their beliefs and by those suffering under the palpable silence of their god.
Scorsese began developing ‘Silence’ following his controversial ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988), and in many ways this film feels like a logical continuation of the questions Scorsese had started playing with. ‘Silence’ is an overwhelming experience, not just because of its vast visual scale but because of the enormity of its discussion around what role religion has to play, the rights of one over another, the inherent similarities and differences between them, and the riddle of how they can co-exist within the same society. It makes for a film that demands your attention at every turn, and forces you to engage with it on a more deeply philosophical level than most, but the rewards justify the effort. Scorsese does not waste one ounce of his opportunity to finally achieve his passion project, so where his previous films revelled in creative, bombastic abandon, every second of ‘Silence’ is carefully considered and calibrated for maximum effect. He assumes his audience is prepared for the philosophical complexities of the film and never waters them down, whether they be rich discussions between priests of different religions or staggering set-pieces of violence and emotional torment. It makes for tough viewing, but it’s also refreshing to watch a film so intent on provoking thought and discussion in its audience in such a considered manner.
For all its intellectual musings though, ‘Silence’ is still an emotionally violent film, oftentimes harrowing. We focus on Rodrigues’ journey, his comprehension of the landscape of Japan and the almost primal rejection of the country to his presence and his faith. For every moment of quiet joy, there are moments of terrible violence, where he is forced to question the role of his faith and his own role in the deaths of those innocent. Rodrigo Prieto’s spectacular cinematography places him and Garupe as incongruities against the wild untamed environment, the film being driven by an unforgiving force of nature at odds with Catholicism yet in harmony with the opposing Buddhism. Many characters (including the Japanese) describe the island as a swamp where what is foreign cannot grow, and that becomes clear within every frame, both the priests’ determination and the ultimate futility of their efforts. There are a lot of similarities between ‘Silence’ and Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), not just in narrative but in the idea that a landscape can swallow and change those trespassing on it.
Much of the experience of watching ‘Silence’ is submitting to its flow. The narrative moves at a considered pace which becomes a tad frustrating during its third act, and a coda that doesn’t land quite as well as it could, but what keeps you arrested to it is its classical cinematic style. The visual canvas is vast and unimpeded by excessive CGI. Prieto shot ‘Silence’ on film, and I would love to one day see it projected in that format. This feels in many ways like a film that’s dropped out of the past, when films could be this big both visually and thematically. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, executed with tremendous control by Scorsese, who takes full advantage of the visual and aural enormity of cinema. His vision is singular and entirely his own, and while this is a level of control we haven’t seen from him in a long time, every frame betrays in the best possible way that this is a Scorsese film through-and-through.
Scorsese does not waste one ounce of his opportunity to finally achieve his passion project, so where his previous films revelled in creative, bombastic abandon, every second of ‘Silence’ is carefully considered and calibrated for maximum effect.
The performances are also across-the-board terrific. It befuddles me that Andrew Garfield has received more attention for his scattered performance in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ instead of his detailed and passionate performance in ‘Silence’, this film pushing his abilities and showing a complexity in his skills as an actor we haven’t seen before. The film rests on both his quiet strength and the slow reveal of the cracks in his faith as the silence of God becomes too deafening. The other highlight of the film is the beguiling performance of Issei Ogata as Governor Inoue Masashige, the inquisitor in charge of purging Japan of the Catholics. His work in the film typifies the way the Japanese are presented in the film, as intelligent and considered and as full of conviction as the Jesuits. Ogata fills his performance with endlessly fascinating detail, making a role that could have been played as an antagonist into something more complex and necessary.
I found myself utterly hypnotised by ‘Silence’, unable to take my eyes off it for a second. It’s certainly a film that tests your endurance, but even though it isn’t entirely a success, the rewards it offers for your efforts are magical. There are moments of enormous humanity and inhumanity, genuine questions about the nature of faith and the role of God in a world where He is either rejected or remains silent in the face of suffering. It’s clear that Scorsese has been wanting to get this one off his chest for a long time, and the result is a genuine epic unafraid to ask big questions of us or of him. ‘Silence’ is a quiet triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.