Silence (2016)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yōsuke Kubozuka, Yoshi Oida, Nana Komatsu, Ryô Kase.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content.)
Running Time: 161 Minutes
Release Date: December 23, 2016

Cappa Defina Productions, EFO Films, Fábrica de Cine, Sikelia Productions, Verdi Productions, Waypoint Entertainment, and Paramount Pictures.

Written by: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese; adapted from the novel “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō.

OUR REVIEW:

There is an overwhelming sense of awe that creeps into nearly every shot found in Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, deeply personal, and continually challenging new film Silence. A labor of love for the iconic filmmaker, the process to bring his vision of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel began in 1990, two years after Scorsese rocked people’s worlds with The Last Temptation of Christ. Some critics have called Silence a complementary film to his 1988 offering and that is a logical and accurate connection to be made.

Scorsese’s film is not the first attempt to adapt Endō’s novel, a 1971 Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda cracked the shell first, but under Scorsese’s dutiful hands, this is clearly a work of art that will be debated and discussed for years to come. One viewing simply does not allow you the opportunity to process and consider everything Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks offers you in the course of 161 minutes.

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in “Silence” | Paramount Pictures

The story has a fairly benign premise. In the 17th century, two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) learn that their mentor, Catholic priest and missionary, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has allegedly committed apostasy to avoid torture and taken a wife and family in Japan. The letter, which both men question the legitimacy of, is used to lobby their mentor (Ciarán Hinds) for a chance to travel to the faraway country and find out what happened to Ferreira. After some admonishment and negotiation, they are given permission to go.

At the time, Japan had just come through the Shimabara Rebellion, a failed four-month effort, from the fall of 1637 to the spring of 1638, by Catholic Christians to overcome persecution by the Japanese government and practice their faith in peace. Resistance came from the Tokugawa Shogunate, the feudal ruling class, who saw the rise of Christianity across Japan as a threat to their power. After suffering defeat, a number of Christians went underground and practiced their faith in secret. History would later anoint them as Kakure Kirishitans, or “Hidden Christians.” The Shogunate would stay in power for another 15 years or so, eventually falling in 1653.

And that’s the landscape where Scorsese operates. The priests venture out and find frightening discoveries and their fears of what life is like for the persecuted proves to be worse than they could have ever imagined. Along the way, they befriend a strange ferryman of sorts named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), who lives a lost and faith-free existence. Together, the men encounter tenuous friend and potential foe, still trying to understand the world they have arrived in and a culture that appears to eventually turn even the most devout men against their faith and beliefs.

Made by a man who loves film, perhaps more than any other, Scorsese has assembled a vast array of colors to paint on this particular canvas. There are sequences and individual shots that simply steal your breath away and watching Scorsese’s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, piece together this movie cut by cut and frame by frame, the intense focus and determination that went into making Silence incredible to consider, much less watch unfold on screen.

Scorsese is involved in more than just making a movie and, by now, he’s certainly earned the right to sort through anything he needs to, cinematically speaking. No one can come away from Silence without an appreciation for the filmmaker’s steadfast, stubborn devotion to film, as creator, storyteller, archivist and champion for the medium. Silence, however, for all does so well starts to become singularly focused and distancing over the course of nearly three hours. 

For those who are not familiar with the history connected to the worlds recreated here, or for those who come to the film with an agnostic or even a nascent faith, much of this will be difficult to grasp. Elements of Silence feel enclosed, closed off, too insular on occasion, its dense dialogue and opaque messaging to non-Catholics hard to comprehend. Because the film is so well made, we try to break through the glass, drawing on what we know and have experienced, but Scorsese is internalizing conflict and churning emotions in his story that feel organically and maybe solely his own.

Liam Neeson in “Silence” | Paramount Pictures

When the film pauses to breathe in its middle and final act, this often comes with the tonal shift generated by the Japanese actor and comedian Issey Ogata. Here, he plays something of a combination jester and devil as Inquisitor Inoue. Ogata flashes a demonic smile and a childlike whimsy to his role as essentially a man who sees himself as a God among mortals. He determines who must be tortured, who must be executed, or who must repent by standing on a fumie to desecrate an image of Jesus and effectively apostatize. These shifts are jarring because of Garfield and Driver, the latter stepping away from much of the film’s second half, who remain earnest and humble. Ogata’s Inquisitor offers much of the context for why the Shogunate enacts their deplorable intimidation and torture upon the Kakure Kirishitans they uncover. The dichotomy which develops between the furrowed brow and soft-spoken Rodrigues, and the cocksure and tempered wildman Inquisitor only agitates the challenges inherent in embracing this film.

Some have and will continue to call this Scorsese’s masterpiece. Many say it might be the best film of his storied career. Perhaps in time, I will soften my view and recognize what they feel they have seen. All I know is that somewhere along the way, the film narrows to a very fine point.

One can recognize the undertaking, the passion, the immense burden Scorsese has shouldered for 25 years trying to bring this film to reality. However, criticizing Silence is not to be glib, cruel, or contrarian. In reality, this is a movie for those of us who bow in the presence of faith and feel empowered that this faith stands taller than anything or anyone else.

But what about the rest of us?

Silence is a lot like a puzzle box with a wonderful image on the front. Sure, it says its 5,000 pieces, but the image looks simple enough to create. Then, after dumping the box out on the table, you recognize all the pieces are tiny, hard to grasp, and all look about the same. You accept the challenge for awhile, but unless you can make ample progress, everything blurs together, nothing makes sense anymore, and you just want to throw up your hands and start shoving everything back in the box.

I admire Silence I truly do. There is much to take away from the experience of watching it. But who is this made for? Even if I repented my criticisms and embraced its offering, this still feels like a movie made for just a few, arguably an audience of one. And that’s a shame because I think Martin Scorsese is truly trying to speak to everyone. Unfortunately, his message is so close to the heart, so deeply personal, he fails to find a way to include most of us on his admirable journey to salvation and understanding.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

SHOULD I SEE IT?

YES

  • Dense, inquisitive, and curious, Silence is a film that will be discussed and debated for a very long time to come.
  • If at all interested, Silence must be seen on the biggest screen imaginable. Pack a lunch, grab extra butter on the popcorn, but take this in for all its worth.
  • A masterful accomplishment on a technical level, with a terrific performance by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver continuing to build a diverse and impressive resume.

NO

  • I do think mainstream, more casual movie audiences, have no idea what they are getting here. And while that in and of itself is not a fair criticism, this is 161 minutes of a laboring, meditative, dialogue-laden journey that is not quite what you see in the trailers and marketing.
  • Who exactly is this made for? Narrow to the point of exclusion, Silence offers little context or buy-in for those unfamiliar with the history featured throughout the film.
  • There have been some expressing unease and outrage with the depiction of Japanese people and culture in the film, and many have noted this feels like something of a “white savior” story. To be honest, there is some substance to those complaints.

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