Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Running time: 161 minutes
After pumping us with ludes-fuelled mayhem and controversy in The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s cinematic sat-nav takes us full U-turn to 17th century Japan with Silence – a quietly poetic, but frustratingly stodgy religious epic that feels weighty and needlessly drawn out.
Based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, the film follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests: Rodriguez (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver) as they venture across a Japan where Christianity is punished by torture and death, in search of mentor Father Ferreira (Neeson), who has reportedly renounced his faith.
Right from the very opening exchanges, echoes of Apocalypse Now, and its source material – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – resound loudly throughout Silence. The chords of a journey into an unpredictable and dangerous unknown in search of a largely mythical superior who has abandoned any notion of his previous-self resonate perhaps a little too clearly. Despite this, Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks orchestrate something of a deeply poetic, darkly elegant venture of personal and religious conflictions where faith appears to cause as much pain as it does salvation. Within Silence’s very own Heart of Darkness: the misty coasts and forests of rural Japan where fear, torture and death are smeared across the bleak landscape – the foundations of Rodriguez and Garupe’s beliefs are more than shaken as a result of the atrocities they witness; where we see the best and indeed the worst of the power Religion holds. The faith of Rodriguez – whose journey the narrative follows primarily – at first appearing as a righteous, divine figure of liberation for both himself and the Christian peasants of a Japanese village, slowly manifests into a blind, somewhat naïve loyalty to a God who is seemingly absent. “The weight of your silence is terrible,” Rodrigues utters to God at one point and, in abstaining from the familiar colloquial cursing that punctuate much of the Scorsese we have become accustomed to; Silence adopts the tone of something much deeper and more spiritual.
This is perhaps Scorsese’s most personal film to date. Yet, while there is unquestionable loving and passionate filmmaking at work here, the film is often bogged down so heavily in religious and expositional lecturing and lengthy interior monologue (disguised as diary entries), that it’s easy to feel disconnected from both character and narrative; and difficult to justify the film’s arse-numbing, near three-hour run time. To Scorsese’s credit, the harrowing torture scenes – while not wanting to sound remotely sadistic in any way – are extremely well shot and, as a result, elicit a raw and powerful discomfort among viewers; however, the film on the whole feels unassured as it stutters towards a third act littered with overly drawn out sequences and false endings.
The casting is an equally mixed bag here. With no De Niro or DiCaprio in sight, the narrative strength and emotional weight of Silence rests on Andrew Garfield’s shoulders and, aside from a less than convincing Portuguese accent, he carries it with confidence and maturity. As Rodriguez, he is given the time and range to flex his diverse acting muscles as a man struggling with his own faith and sanity in what is perhaps his most accomplished and complete performance to date. Yes, the boyish good-looks and flowing brown curls paint an all too obvious parallel to Jesus himself, but it is credit to Garfield’s work here that we remain engaged on an emotional level for the duration. Man of the moment Adam Driver – who seems to have been in nearly everything that was good in 2016 – does well with a relatively underwritten role, and Liam Neeson is far more Qui-Gon Jinn than Colonel Kurtz as the apostatised Father Ferreira. Surprisingly, it is, in fact, the work of the Japanese supporting cast which is most commendable here. Most notably, the performances of Yōsuke Kubozuka as an archetypal Judas figure named Kichijiro and Tadanobu Asano as a cold, sharp translator particularly stand out and bring real intrigue to the part players. While the Hollywood A-listers are the ones that ensure the cinema seats will be filled, it is the work of these relatively unknown actors that will certainly keep them there.
Novelistic in its narrative approach and often too much so for its own good, Silence invites intrigue and constructs some compelling moral dilemmas, however fails to sustain them throughout. Die-hard Scorsesians will certainly appreciate the director’s personal ties to the subject matter, but the film feels far too clunky to be considered one of his best.