Review: Silence (2016)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata

Be it the pilot episodes of HBO dramas Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl or his recent feature presentations, 2011’s love letter to cinema Hugo or the rambunctious and for-the-most-part crowd pleasing hit The Wolf Of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial output has maintained a level of pomp, vigor and pazazz which is conspicuously absent from his latest salvo Silence, a passion-project that has long gestated within the master’s heart, now finally realised.

You might be able to list on one hand the directors working today with the clout required to bring such a particular and unforgiving picture to our screens. To have achieved it at all in this day and age is something of a minor miracle not easily dismissed, yet here it is, arriving on New Year’s Day in the UK like an interminable 2016 hangover. It’s long, merciless and there’s precious little light in store. Yet that personal drive underpins the film. What’s been removed from his recent toolbox has been done so out of deference to the weighty material. Those bushy eyebrows have rarely been so downward cast.

It’s the early 17th century, and Portuguese Jesuit priests have been attempting to amass a Christian base in Japan. What was going well has become a thwarted and torturous undertaking as the powers within Japan have outlined a firm stand against the religion; their attempts to crush the faith are merciless and cruel. Idolised priest Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is seen and heard from as the film begins, kneeling aghast at the horrors inflicted on his brethren. A quick scene follows this to set in motion the story to come; Ferreira is missing, and is believed to have rejected his faith. Two of his disciples, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set out in search of him and to learn the truth.

Silence plays out like a sermonising Apocalypse Now, Rodrigues and Garrpe hear Ferreira’s own words and reject their meaning just as Willard does on hearing the tapes of the renegade Col. Kurtz. Their exploits in Japan have a similar heart-of-darkness feel to them. Strangers in a strange land, they are appalled by the methods used to ‘break’ Christians. As they cower in the tall grass and witness villagers being tortured to death, they find their own faiths tested in a world that seems increasingly ruled by madness.

Mainstream cinema hasn’t been offered something so filled with its own self-importance since The Revenant, but even that picture found room for a little light. Scorsese extinguishes any notion of the need for relief, and perhaps it would indeed have been inappropriate given the context, but still it’s bracing to find a film this dour even during prestige season. That he has deliberately downplayed his bravura style only adds to this. Which is not to say Silence is anything less than remarkably accomplished. The stark directness of the framing (exquisite photography from Rodrigo Prieto) and the relative lack of visual flourishes make the experience feel refined and on-point, even as it’s back virtually breaks under the hefty 160 minute running time.

That length is ultimately justified as the shape of Rodrigues’ journey through the film asserts itself. Like the long joke or shaggy-dog story, the size and elaborately episodic nature of the yarn are integral to its pay-off (though, just to be clear in case you didn’t get it already, there’s no laughing here, okay?). The third act is earned the hard way, but it is here that the film becomes more of a conversation than a sermon, at least by degrees.

Late in the picture, a Japanese proverb is offered forth, that mountains and rivers may be moved before the nature of man. In the main Silence paints the Christians in Japan as devout martyrs to their faith, saints in peasant robes to a man, and those that seek to crush their beliefs are by extension grotesque ciphers of inhuman villainy. But as this proverb is posed to Rodrigues, it lets in a crack of doubt in Scorsese’s otherwise largely didactic presentation. Here it is suggested that what Rodrigues has seen in Japan is the true face of man; that cruelty and the need to dominate his fellows is a truth universal, one just as powerful as any religious creed.

It’s a glum philosophy, sure, but it reads as a strong argument in the aftermath of all Scorsese has shown to us. It’s just one example among many in a film which encourages the viewer to ruminate on their own understanding of human nature and of faith. And while Silence is a religious film and a biased, even hypocritical one at that, it at least acknowledges that faith and organised religions are fascinating paradigms in our psychological nature, powerful enough to write history books throughout the ages, for better or worse. Often for worse.

Scorsese’s players are keyed in to the tone of reverence required of them. Neeson does this kind of severity in his sleep, Driver has shown himself capable in nearly any range, while Issei Ogata nearly steals the film away from all comers as the chief of Inquisition whom Rodrigues finds himself in opposition with. Garfield too is largely very impressive (though his warbled moments of mania sit awkwardly and are kept mercifully brief).

His Rodrigues is a righteous man, but a prideful one. At his most zealous he sees the face of Christ in his own reflection. At the time this seems both crass and uncharacteristically cheesy of the film (a Lord Of The Rings parody? Now?), but by the film’s end it seems oddly fitting. Faith is an internal battle. When it is let loose on the world at large its cost is measured out in bloodshed and brutality. Such is the ego of man. Keep it within and it may yet be nurtured.

Score:  3

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