In his first feature film since The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese returns to his Roman Catholic roots with an almost 3-hour-long marathon of a movie Silence. Based on Shusaku Endo's book of the same name, Silence is not a fast movie, but its pacing is a testimony to the talent of all involved, as it manages to be riveting despite its slowness.
The movie chronicles the journey of two young priests, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garape (Adam Driver), who travel to Japan to locate their long lost mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson), at a time when Christianity was outlawed in Japan.
A battle of faith
After the debauchery and ostentatiousness of The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence is a complete change of course for Scorsese, with humble, unglamorous settings, a largely Japanese cast and minimal, often Japanese, dialogue.
The film deals with themes of faith, devotion, sacrifice and ritualism as Rodrigues and Garape are forced to deal with all of these issues in their quest to find Ferreira. It's a quest that is filled with danger and doubt, however, Scorsese treats all of it without sensationalising it, allowing the movie to proceed with a quiet dignity.
In one particularly moving scene earlier, a Japanese Christian who refuses to renounce his religion is put to death. Whereas most directors would go to great lengths to make his death as graphic as possible, as a means of establishing his righteousness, Scorsese manages it with the right perspective, narration and cinematography. It transforms a scene that could otherwise be tastelessly gritty, into a sensitive, empathetic experience.
The rest of the movie is also replete with treatment like this and, while you're unsure of the payoff earlier on as the story isn't very pacey, you realise its value by the end.
No white man's burden
The futility of the martyrs faith is on full display. However, their commitment isn't mocked. They are granted their share of heroism, but it stops well short of glory as the movie understands that the triumph of their faith is a personal victory, not a public one.
Those who renounce their faith are similarly not painted as undeserving as empathy. Their reasons, doubts, fears and humanity are all in focus, making their choice both understandable and forgivable. One Judas-like figure, Kichijiro, epitomises this, repeatedly failing tests of faith, but still managing to remain 'good’.
The movie also avoids the pitfall of being an 'Us vs. Them’ flick. It avoids the binary of white versus native, or Christianity versus native culture.
While one would imagine that a film about priests would eventually devolve into an attempt to civilise the savage natives, the movie avoids this by establishing that the priest's intentions, while noble, aren't necessarily right, and hints at the cozy relationship between politics and religion, both in the case of would-be colonisers as well as Japan.
As such, there is no need for the 'good guys’ to win, as there aren't really any good guys, per se. This allows the movie to just tell the tale of an actual era in history without needing to create heroes or villains. As a result, the movie's resolution is also a sober one.
The performances are strong and sincere from every single actor. Andrew Garfield, who anchors the movie, is, by far, the shakiest of the lot, with an accent that is neither here nor there (He's meant to be Portuguese), but builds steadily to the point where his performance is still laudable. The film's long runtime also helps him ease into the role so that you stop seeing the actor and only the character by the end.
Should you watch it?
One would've hoped for a little more screen time for Adam Driver and Liam Neeson, but the movie is based on a book so Scorsese had little room for maneuvering there. Despite this, it's hard to shake the feeling that Adam Driver, from the litle of him we see in the movie, was perhaps better suited to play Garfield's starring role.
Silence will not win many awards. It probably won't even make most critics' top 20s for 2017 due to its slow pace and undramatic end. Despite this, the end result is a strong movie worth seeing. While you may wonder what you've signed up for initially, stick around and you'll be well rewarded.