Martin Scorsese has never backed away from involving religion in his films. We’ve seen overt attempts to tackle his perception of certain topics like in The Last Temptation of Christ. There have also been instances where his characters are given extra dimensions based on their religion, like with Mean Streets. Silence is a strong push back into overt territory and he challenges himself by addressing the perils of devotion to a belief in a manner that strips him of many qualities associated with his films. The result is a bleak and solemn challenge to the audience that can expect a level of detail and committed performances, while also being placed in a troubling scenario with the characters we follow.
Based upon the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence tells the story of two Portuguese Catholic priests in the 17th century who traveled to Japan in an effort to locate their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson). These two priests, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), have been given word that Ferreira has succumb to torture and committed apostasy (the act of renouncing one’s religion). This of course means finding out the truth, as well as performing their own duties for the villages they encounter.
While Silence looks about as good as any Scorsese movie can, thanks to impressive cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, it is amazing to see how the 74-year old director does almost everything he can to remove his signature stamp from the film. While it would be hard not to recall similar works such as ‘Last Temptation’ or Kundun, this film operates on its own level with a strong reliance on the meditative nature of what we are seeing. Certain familiar elements come up, such as Garfield’s narration, but much of the film locks us into a world where we are given constant reminders of what truly matters – the pressure and burden of maintaining conviction.
This is certainly a period film, but it’s far from the spectacle found in others. Costumes and décor make their appearance, but the depiction of 17th-century Japan largely amounts to scrappy villages and lots of scenery. This does include the oceans, which hardly seem like a way for the soul to be cleansed in a film like this. The journey we go on means watching various devotees be pounded by the current, while strapped to crosses. However, the film also doesn’t sensationalize the violence. Silence has the eye of Scorsese, but from a minimalist’s viewpoint.
There is a through line in all of this, as we watch the priests go on their journey and inevitably meet up with Neeson’s fallen character. However, the journey, while lengthy, provides the sense of struggle an audience may need to cinematically get to in order to be on the same page as Garfield (who is ostensibly the film’s lead). It’s why a sweeping score is absent to speed things up, as Silence prefers a more subtle approach that feels like the ambient noises gathered to create some kind of mild melody.
In reaching Neeson, the film becomes even more interesting, as well as more engaging. If it is something of a large buy-in to go through the film’s midsection, it is worth it to finally encounter Neeson’s defeated Ferreira, along with the various important figures that ruled over this Edo period. It is here the screenplay by Scorsese and Jay Cocks really sinks into what has been on the director’s mind. Rodigues finds himself in the ultimate challenge to prove how far he’ll go to preserve his belief. It also means believably taking issue with what he and his ilk attempted to force on others, only to now face a sense of cruel irony in the most intense form of backlash.
With all that is going on, the actors certainly never lost sight of the intensity required to pull off these roles. Driver shed many pounds to portray the gaunt and haughtier of the two priests. Neeson is a towering figure who manages to remove so much of himself to play as broken down as possible. Garfield is terrific as far as his level of commitment, even if it means taking on the hallmark of donning a period film-friendly accent for the sake of the cause (Neeson doesn’t even bother).
It’s not all about the major Hollywood names either. The great Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano brings a great, malevolent touch to his interpreter character. Shinya Tsukamoto exudes proper confidence as the devoted Mkichi. Yosuke Kubozuka is the closest thing to the film’s sense of humor (however dark), as Kichijiro, a tragic coward who lives to sell out others multiple times throughout the film.
As a passion project, Scorsese has dived into Silence with a mind to continue working out the conundrums he finds in his own spirituality as well as put something on screen that communicates true cinema. It has seemingly little intention on playing up commercial qualities, but it undeniably delivers a variety of ideas that can be taken in better on a big screen, amongst a quiet audience to preserve a fully-formed atmosphere. This is Silence after all and holding onto one’s thoughts while taking in such an experience means yielding to Scorsese’s design. Fortunately his intention is not to provide a torturous experience, just one that allows for piece of mind through extreme measures.