A movie’s director often supersedes the importance of the subject matter itself. Martin Scorsese’s Silence is as good an example of this as you’ll ever see. On concept alone, I may not have been very excited about watching Christian priests survive 17th century Japan for three hours. But a little trust in your favorite director can go a long way. Silence is a powerful, thought provoking, and morally ambiguous experience meant for viewers of all creeds and colors.
At face value, Silence is a heavily religious film. Much of the story is about faith and how, often times, faith and religion can be very different. But Silence’s primary strength is as a window peeking into a dark time and place in history. Religion and politics, while very different, share an irritating cinematic trend. Both themes tend to push an agenda upon their audiences. Politically driven projects often tell people how to think. Religious films often tell people what to believe. And that isn’t an inherently bad thing. If the movie itself is great, a director’s personal opinion or perspective should be a welcome thing. Moviegoers know how to take messages with a grain of salt when they’re overly preachy.
Silence goes above and beyond by avoiding this trap altogether, despite material that begs to be turned into some sort of Public Service Announcement. Religious tolerance and the damage done by oppression don’t become force-fed ideas. They’re simply the reasonable conclusions you’ll probably come to as the film presents atrocities in an alarmingly matter-of-fact tone. The Japanese assault on Christianity doesn’t even seem outright evil. It’s a calculated horror committed by leaders that want complete control. Scorsese’s ability to distance himself from the issues present in his latest masterpiece allows him to tell the story as a bystander. In doing so, we are all turned into bystanders as the film’s intensity continues to climb.
Before this turns into more of a book club than a movie review, the point is Silence will inspire a wealth of conversations between people who couldn’t care less about the material itself. It’s certainly not a fast and easy watch. Remember when Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street was three hours, but felt like thirty minutes? Yea, this is not that. But it is a daring cinematic experience that actually feels important. Even if you can’t buy into the time, place or subject, the themes in play are universal. Conviction, sacrifice, and the futility of belief are worth anyone’s consideration. And that list doesn’t cover half of Silence’s poignant elements.
The film’s star is a director, but Silence plays host to a number great acting performances as well. Despite a couple of touted roles on his résumé, including another one this year, this was by far the best acting of Andrew Garfield’s career. He’s accomplished as it is, but carrying a movie with this much weight is a completely different level. We painfully experience a man being completely broken in so many ways, and Garfield manages to do it with subtlety. I spent the first few scenes trying to keep track of his accent, waiting for inconsistencies. But within an hour, I completely forgot I was even watching an actor. Adam Driver is predictably great in a smaller role, and Liam Neeson is chilling with similar minutes.
I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel walking away from this movie, and I think that’s what I like about it so much. Silence punches you in the gut, then walks away. It never turns back around to say why you’re on the floor. Like many of this year’s quality films, some patience is required. It’s probably safe to say more patience than anything else you’ve seen recently is required. I only say that to not con anyone into watching something I loved, only to have you fall asleep. But if given a chance to speak, Silence will deeply move anyone with the proper attention span. Don't be fooled by the Globes absence. This one belongs right in the middle of Oscar contention. If you ever want to find out just how good a movie can be without being particularly “enjoyable”, Silence is the 8th of your day you’ll want to spend.