A long, gruelling, passion-project with (God forbid!) a distinctly religious focus? On paper this film sets off alarm bells for another pretentious on-screen essay. It seems to rest on a few big names, in a transparent attempt to lure us into buying a ticket and thereby justifying its existence.
This film is nothing of the sort. Instead Martin Scorsese continues to develop a portfolio of features that gently stretch the boundaries of film with one hand, while encouraging the mainstream audience to follow with the other.
I’m not going to pretend that this is a film anyone is going to enjoy on first watch. It’s painful; an experience that has to be lived through. And only once you’ve come out the other side can you appreciate the beauty and magnificence of it. In that respect it’s like enduring our own martyrdom, the movie equivalent of peeling off a particularly obstinate plaster.
Casting in this film is the first key to its success. The incredibly talented Japanese cast were tantamount in generating the utterly credible but dark world of 17th Century Japan. Issei Ogata is the standout performance, bringing a villain in Inoue that is the perfect combination of comedy and terror. So nuanced is his performance and so convincing his conviction that, at times, you are genuinely endeared to him despite the horror he is overseeing.
Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield have received decidedly mixed reviews in their starring roles as Rodrigues and Garrupe. While their Portugese accents are undeniably questionable, but this isn’t enough to undermine two solid portrayals. Garfield – formerly famous for being the second worst of three Spidermen (and let’s face it, he was never going to be the worst) – overcomes his Hollywood-perfect appearance to embody a believably broken priest. At one point his reflected face literally transforms into a painting of Christ like a terrible snapchat filter, but audiences are kept from laughing by the haunting cackle of his crushed Rodrigues. Scenes that could easily teeter into comedy are kept in the realm of the sincere by the compelling acting.
The film balances questions of morality with entertainment seamlessly. Whole passages of Scorsese and Jay Cocks’ script are discussions of philosophical ideas, laced with allegories about trees and swamps and ugly wives. But coupled with intense drama and at times unbearable torture scenes, these passages have contextual weight that carries even a skeptical onlooker (like myself) through them. The film somehow manages to be unobtrusively discursive.
Despite spending 25 years on this film – hell, I’ve only been able to use a toilet for 19 years! – Scorsese avoids being too heavy-handed with his personal opinions. Critics claiming it glorifies martyrdom clearly missed the scathing criticism of self-righteous suffering from Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Claims it shows only a Christian viewpoint forget that the Japanese torturers are given as much a voice as the Christians, at times their arguments even verging on more convincing. Attempts to see contrived answers in the film disregard the questions it raises about faith, humanity, and suffering. Even attempting to discuss the ‘morality’ of this film requires more time and analysis than anyone can give in one measly review. This film is an expression of Scorsese’s own struggle with religion, NOT a simple attempt to indoctrinate.
Silence is not the ultimate Scorsese masterpiece some make it out to be either. It’s too long, with the closing act containing an entirely omissible 10 minutes that achieve very little other than to detract from the impact of the finale. This is coupled with a totally misplaced narration, that serves no purpose visual storytelling could not. The cinematography is often beautiful but sometimes lacks the pace and dynamism to carry some more charged moments. But to judge a film as simply ‘good by Scorsese standard’ is still a huge commendation.
Many will come out of this film hating it and it’s definitely not a film you watch to enjoy. But it is a haunting picture; it lingers with you and develops into something quite spectacular the more you mull it over. We are forced to watch the suffering from a position where we are silent, unable to help. In a sense, it forces us to both suffer as a martyr and to suffer as a God might suffer – looking on but unable to truly intervene.
As much as I am loathe to put a film about God into Movie Heaven (if only as a rejection of cliché), this film is a strong contendor for Best Film and Best Screenplay Adaptation at the next Oscars and is a definite success. Into Heaven you go!