Writer: Martin Scorsese & Jay Cocks (screenplay); Shûsaku Endô (novel)
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson
Running time: 161mins
What’s the story: Two Portuguese priests journey to 17th century Japan to discover the whereabouts of a colleague who has reportedly renounced his religion. The two priests also attempt to spread Catholicism, but find danger in the ruling class attempting to drive foreign beliefs from the land, often violently.
What’s the verdict: Even ignoring The Last Temptation of Christ, religion and chiefly Catholicism have loomed large in Scorsese’s work. Guilt, sin, temptation and falls from grace have touched everything from his first feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door, through Mean Streets and Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, and right up to The Wolf of Wall Street, which saw the director striving for the last word on cinematic Sodom and Gomorrah.
Plus, Scorsese has spent his career arguing against accusations that women in his films are either saints or whores.
Women do not feature prominently in Silence, unsurprising for a story focussing on Catholic priests in 17th century Japan. Also shifted to the background is the visual pizzazz that barreled The Wolf of Wall Street through three debauched hours. Silence comes in 19 minutes shy of that run time, and opts for a pace some will regard as meditative and others label glacial.
On the surface the story, adapted from Shûsaku Endô’s novel, resembles Hearts of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Portuguese priests Rodrigues and Garrpe (Garfield and Driver) are dispatched on a mission to discover the whereabouts of the legendary Father Ferreira (a pained face Neeson).
Ferreira led a mission to Japan years before, and allegedly renounced his religion during the Japanese Shogunate purges of those preaching Christianity. Not believing this rumour of apostasy Rodrigues and Garrpe travel east looking for their mentor.
Upon arrival in Japan they spread Catholicism through small communities, where villagers have worshipped secretly (including Tetsuo director Shin’ya Tsukamoto as one of the faithful). But, threat of denunciation is ever-present, a travelling Inquisitor (Ogata) paying handsomely for any information on clandestine Christians.
Garfield (who coincidentally also appeared in the Japan/Christian themed Hacksaw Ridge) is suitably expressive featured as Rodrigues, his missionary zeal giving way to doubt and literal soul searching when he sees the price of Christianity in this distant land.
A first half depicting Rodrigues and Garrpe’s mission shifts into a darker second section, when Rodrigues discovers himself in a theological battle of wills against the Inquisitor’s interpreter (a disquietingly polite Tadanobu Asano), with local villagers the pawns in their game.
Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks (whose last collaboration was the disappointing Gangs of New York) wrestle with the title’s central meaning; God’s absence in the face of suffering. Some will find this spiritual investigation deeply moving, whereas others are likely to regard this as the human cost of conflicting superstitions run riot, or another example of the Catholic Church ruining lives.
The film almost successfully positions itself as a story of free expression under a repressive regime, but the Church’s ignoble history does not engender swathes of sympathy.
Silence was previously filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda, but stylistically Scorsese positions his movie alongside the eerie mists of Onibaba or the turbulent landscapes of Hara-Kiri, and features striking scenes of persecution, including crucifixion drowning and beach side immolation.
Undoubtedly, this is a big watch, requiring the eyes and ears, an engaged brain plus a degree of patience for some of the more “leisurely paced” passages (the dynamic symbolism of Kundun is not replicated here).
But, come the closing moments there is little doubt the master director has realised one of his most personal projects with genuine grace.
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