A Film That Deserves To Be Reviewed...
Beautiful cinematography, pastoral Japanese landscapes, and a somber soundtrack straight from the Orient sounds more like the description of an old Kurosawa film than anything by Martin Scorsese. Nevertheless, while watching 2016's Silence this past week, I found myself continuously fighting the urge to check the back of the Blu Ray case to make sure it was, in fact, a Scorsese movie that I was watching.
It's not just the style and subject matter that makes it hard to believe that this is from the same guy who directed Goodfellas and Wolf of Wallstreet, -but also that fact that I hadn't heard anything about it. There was virtually zero marketing for this movie as best I can tell. The only reason I even heard of Silence at all is because it just sort of accidentally popped up in my Netflix rental suggestions one evening, and the thumbnail piqued my interest enough so that I actually decided to check it out (it stars Liam Neeson and Adam Driver, and has gotten good reviews... thus my intrigue). It was only when it finally arrived that I noticed who the director was.
I did a little further researching online and discovered that it only made about 3 million US$ against a budget of 50 million. Another way to word it would be: Hardly anyone has seen this thing. After watching it myself, the fact that this movie remains obscure seems tragic. The only way I could think to rectify the travesty of this movie being ignored was to write this review of it...
What It's About:
And so, a basic decoction of Silence's plot: It follows the story of two Jesuit priests from Portugal (Frs. Garupe and Rodrigues -played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who are sent to Japan to find their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira has been missing for several years, though it has been rumored that he's been tortured by the Tokugawa Shogunate and has subsequently renounced his faith to become a Buddhist monk. Desiring to both clear his name and verify whether he's alive or dead, the two young priests undertake their voyage to the famed Oriental island -where, incidentally, Catholics (and foreign priests especially) are being severely persecuted.
The first half of the film follows Frs. Garupe and Rodrigues through several impoverished villages full of devout Japanese Catholics. The two are simultaneously impressed with the unshakable faith of the Japanese who have managed to hang on to their beliefs despite immense persecution, and yet cynical about the abysmal state of the faithful. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) specifically struggles with age old questions regarding the problem of evil, and other indicia and uncertainties that leave him plagued with doubt.
The film reaches it's arch after Frs. Garupe and Rodrigues part ways. Soon after, Rodrigues is captured by the samurai and brought before the head Buddhist inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (portrayed brilliantly by Japanese actor Issey Ogata). He undergoes numerous interrogations, including a final interface with his old mentor, Father Ferreira who, Fr. Rodrigues learns, is in fact still alive. All of this serves to force Rodrigues not only to examine his faith in God, but also Church dogma, and even the concept of faith itself. We, the audience, watch all of this unfold in a completely rapt state as he struggles to face the real-world problems for which he received no training as a priest. -Like all people of faith (And like Fr. Ferreira before him), Rodrigues is compelled to come up with his own answers to these unusual, bewildering, and increasingly recondite situations into which he is forced.
The script was based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō, which is itself based upon the real-life story of Father Cristovao Ferreira and his friend, Giuseppe di Chiara, -two of the so-called "fallen priests" who are well known in Jesuit / Portuguese history.
Why You Should See It
The main draw of the film for me is that Silence hearkens back to a lot of Scorsese's mid-career work. Fans of The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun will see this as a welcome return to form. Silence isn't just a throwback either, but a modern breakthrough for the director's inchoate religious themes, namely the concepts of doubt, compromise, self-questioning, faith, etc. Silence, to put it frankly, is Scorsese at his most philosophical (although one could argue that every Scorsese film is both religious and philosophical; even his "street" films like Goodfellas, The Departed, Casino, etc. are about the emptiness of material and/or worldly pursuits. Those that live purely worldly lives are, in Scorsese's universe, always punished or left feeling unfulfilled and hollow... the irony here is, seldom do the faithful fare better).
Add to this, Silence is packed with arresting visuals. It deserves an Oscar for cinematography alone (it was nominated but didn't win). Also, as an astute cinephile, I saw a lot of Akira Kurosawa influence in this picture cinematography-wise, and it was endlessly fascinating to observe Scorsese draw upon authorities outside of his usual wellsprings. In short, he tried something new and, at least in my opinion, it really paid off. This innovation is true of nearly every aspect of the film, from setting, to subject matter, -even the soundtrack, which was both subtle and affecting (I would refer to the score as paradoxically sparse and encompassing. An aggregate that hardly anyone can pull off).
It should be cautioned, however, that Silence is by no means fast-paced. It's very much an onion-peel that takes its time and lets the drama accrete inchmeal, like hoarfrost or rime accumulating overnight on a window sill. It demands patience, but that patience pays off in multifarious ways. Thankfully, Scorsese is smart enough to know that if the plot must take its time, the visuals can't be given the same leeway. There's plenty in Silence's setting, design, and score to get lost in while waiting on the brilliance of the narrative to fully reveal itself.
So, are you one of the few who have actually seen 2016's Silence? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comment's section below!