SILENCE – Review
2017 is a milestone year for a true master of modern cinema. He harkens back to a time when the most celebrated directors were as big a star as the actors in their films. And, like many of those revered film makers, he’s recognized primarily by his last name. He’s part of a roll call along with Hitchcock, DeMille, Lean. Oh, but he made his name well past the era of the big studio system, one of those hungry “young rebels” that bent all the rules. These products of the college film departments, who “cut their teeth” in TV and drive-in quickies: Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese. Martin Scorsese has now been directing feature films for fifty years (his first was 1967’s WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?). While his film making contemporary, Frances Coppola, has largely stepped away from the cameras, Scorsese continues to craft highly personal films attracting big talents eager to work with a “master”. He’s tried to make this new film for half of his directing career, not surprising since it contains themes from several of his earlier pieces. And it’s based on a book just over 50 years old, named SILENCE.
The story begins with a letter written by a priest from Portugal, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in 1633. He was leading a missionary mission in feudal Japan when the country’s rulers banned Christianity, believing the West was exerting too much influence, and destroying the culture. Ferreira writes of how he was forced to watch the torture of his Jesuit brothers. The letter is smuggled out and finally makes its way to father Alessandro Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) in 1640. He reads it to two of Ferreira’s pupils, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), and tells them that, if Ferreira is still alive, he has renounced his faith, committing apostasy. The young men don’t believe this and insist on making the dangerous trek to Japan and find their mentor. Valignano finally consents to their plan, but flatly states that they will be the last priests sent their on a mission. The priests hear of a Japanese Christian guide in Macau that will smuggle them into his native land. After much pleading, the drunken Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) takes them to a hidden coastal village where several natives still practice the forbidden religion. While hiding in a tiny cabin in the mountains, the priests conduct mass, while waiting for nightfall to venture outdoors (there is a high bounty on the padres). Eventually the Grand Inquisitor and his men arrive at the village and dispatch three of the worshipers. Thinking that their presence together endangers all of their flock, Garupe and Rodrigues separate. While Garupe leaves for Hirado, Rodrigues continues his quest for Ferriera with Kichijiro, hoping he can find out the truth about his teacher while evading the cruel, determined shoguns and samurai.
In the past year, with this role and his stirring performance in the recent HACKSAW RIDGE, Garfield establishes himself as one of the screen’s most compelling actors. He could have coasted with his two blockbuster Spider-Man flicks, following up with simple “fluffy” projects, but he tackles a most complex character here as young priest trying to keep his beliefs while being dragged down in a sea of sorrow. Garfield shows us the conflict brewing inside the mind of Rodrigues, whose body and soul are battered almost into submission. He’s an interesting counterpart to Driver, whose Garupe is equally idealistic, but more adamant and forceful in his approach to the mission. He believes his will can withstand any test. After his excellent motion capture work in A MONSTER CALLS, it’s great to see Neeson stepping away from his TAKEN sequels and variations, as the object of the great quest. His eyes convey the enormity of the tragedy as he’s forced to witness the sacrifices of those who followed him. The actors playing the locals bring a sense of gritty realism to this tale, especially Kubozuke as the energetic and unpredictable Kichijiro who seems to be walking a tightrope between the combatants. Also making a strong impression is Tadanobu Asano as the wily, bitter interpreter assigned to Rodrigues.
Scorsese has explored devotion and faith in many of his previous works, so much of this film plays as a mix of KUNDUN (Buddhism) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (though this film won’t elicit any of that firestorm of controversy). The subject matter is treated with much dignity and reverence, almost becoming a tad, well for lack of a better term, “preachy”. The result is a film that’s too long, with four or five scenes of brutality (although another director of recent religious epics might have wallowed in gore and guts) bookended by long stretches of theological debates which really derail any real momentum. Plus the performance styles often clash, with some interpretations feeling almost comic, with menacing rulers right out of “The Mikado”. The cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto paired with the music score by Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge give the exotic locations a mesmerizing beauty. But by the end of the film we’re left with too many questions about the decisions made by the principals. SILENCE is not quite up to his greatest works, but Scorsese continues to remain a major force in film. Here’s to his next fifty years of cinema.
3.5 Out of 5