Silence review: Martin Scorsese delivers a long in-development story, one of the first great movies of 2017.

Silence review, Andrew Gaudion, December 2016.

silence review

Silence has alluded Martin Scorsese since the early 90’s. Based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, which was previously adapted in 1971, Silence has come to represent something of a passion project for Scorsese. It is not hard to see the appeal. The story is one of unique dramatic potential, offering rich ground for discussion. And for Scorsese, a tale of priests who have lost their way must have appealed, having been raised in a devoutly Catholic environment. That passion has been channelled on screen in what is Scorsese’s most intimately powerful work since, fittingly, The Last Temptation of Christ. 

Set in the seventeenth century, Silence follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) head to feudal Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who may have committed apostasy in the face of violence of persecution in Japan, where Christianity is outlawed. Their mission is soon faced with the same test of faith as they fall into the hands of the feudal Japanese military government, the Tokugawa shogunata.

silence review

Scorsese is a director who is more than capable of matching the virtuosity and energy of filmmakers much younger than his years, as evident by the madcap escapades of The Wolf of wall Street. Silence is a much different affair, a more personally charged project with a heavy thematic undertaking. Through Rodrigues and Garrpe’s journey into feudal Japan, Silence becomes a canvas for exploring the strength of faith, the dangers of belief, and doubt that forms when such faith is put into question. This is where Silence excels, in its probing of religious belief, delivering a film which is as emotionally rich as it is visually striking.

Most of the film’s exploration of faith concerns Garfield’s Father Rodrigues, as he is taken by the Tokugawa shogunata, who proceed to break his spirit and make him commit apostasy through several often violent psychological and physical tests. For the most part, Scorsese is very willing to allow doubt to settle in, portraying arguments on both sides that are very convincing. The Jesuit priest’s intentions may be noble, but the film is not quick to forget that they bring most of the trouble on themselves by merely entering Japan, a country where they know their religion is outlawed. It allows for depiction of religion that both devout Christians and atheists (and all in-between) can embrace as a piece of work that inspires worthy discussion.

silence review

On a filmic level, Silence is pretty much impeccable. Despite often jarring uses of CG-enhancement, the film is very textured, beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto on 35mm, while the framings, movements and editing are as dynamic as anything Scorsese has produced, allowing the film to be consistently arresting on a visual level, even if the story occasionally becomes a little repetitive (although that’s very much the nature of  The 2 and a half hour runtime never feels like a test though, as the splendour on screen and the debates conjured in your mind keep you engaged throughout.

Most of these moments are driven by Garfield’s well-judged and sensitive performance. He does very well to demonstrate Rodrigues’ confliction, as he is a man clearly troubled by both the actions of the Japanese government and the consequences of his presence. He is certainly more at ease at the Portuguese accent than Adam Driver who, despite a clear level of commitment, never gets to quite grapple with the themes with as much as Garfield does. Neeson remains allusive for the most part but what he offers come the final act is pivotal to ruminations of faith, the silence of God and how religion can often be misinterpreted. The supporting cast are on impressive form as well, particularly Tadanobu Asano as the interpreter, adding a surprising amount of wit to the proceedings.

The biggest flaw that Silence has is that Scorsese occasionally over-plays his hand, particularly as we enter an epilogue that stretches out a tad too much, ending at a point that isn’t too surprising. But that does nothing to dilute the impact of a work of such grandeur and weighty thematic concerns. It instantly provokes thoughtful discussion, delivering a well-balanced, visually rich, emotionally stirring journey that is hard to shake off once it comes to its conclusion. Silence feels like Scorsese’s most personal picture, and thus it has a power that is unprecedented in his catalogue of work. And, if you didn’t know, that is saying something.

Silence review by Andrew Gaudion.

Silence is released in UK cinemas on January 1st, 2017.