Cinema stalwart Martin Scorsese returns to his roots with the completion of his religious trilogy. Based on the Japanese novel of the same name, Silence has been in development since 1990 and as with most films that have been in the oven for so long, it’s a bit overcooked.
We open in 17th century Japan where Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) narrates the horrors he has been subjected to while attempting to spread Christianity in the east. These words are revealed to be the contents of his final letter to his Jesuit Order in Portugal, and have arrived with rumours that he has renounced his faith under duress of torture. Thus his pupils Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are dispatched to discover the faith of their mentor, unconvinced that he would commit apostasy. They are guided on their journey by Kichjiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a former Christian who had fled Japan but now desperately wishes to return to his homeland. The priests endure great hardships and struggles as they attempt to provide succour and guidance to the persecuted Japanese Christians, while also attempting to discover the fate of Ferreira.
So Apocalypse Now but with priests, and with the other American Gangster movie maestro at the helm. Thus it is unsurprising that there are points where this film shines like an absolute masterpiece. As the synopsis reveals this is a harrowing tale of suffering and the practiced brushwork of veteran director Scorsese is phenomenal. He guides scenes with tremendous heft and weight effortlessly through tight tense builds into withering results. Many individual scenes from Silence could be ripped from the film and stand alone as wrenching masterworks.
Credit is also to be heaped upon cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto has previously collaborated with Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street but his work here is tremendous. From the very first shot of the film his camerawork is utterly captivating and lends the film an eerie gravitas which couples magnificently with Scorsese’s direction.
Unfortunately, Silence is the type of film that starts tremendously, and as time rolls on you begin to note detractions and issues as opposed to what the film is doing well. I’m not a huge Andrew Garfield fan but was interested in seeing how he would perform. The bulk of the emotional and dramatic burden is on his shoulders, and he was acceptable.
From the beginning its clear that something is just lacking from his performance. Yes he cries and screams and it’s good but it’s all very superficial and never resonated with me. It’s curious that Adam Driver is the less featured of the two as he inhabits his part with a very raw and powerful performance. I was worried that Garfield might be to Scorsese what Shia LeBouf was to Spielberg but I soon figured out why he was picked for the premier role. With his hair and beard grown out he looks a bit like a certain man of Nazareth. Incidentally this leads to the films worst moments with some very ham-fisted Jesus metaphors and symbolism that would have been better left in the subtext.
Neeson gives a solid turn as Father Ferreira (even if the rest of the cast is speaking with an accent and he isn’t for some reason). The best performances in the film come not from Spider-Man or Qui Gon Jinn, but the Japanese contingent. The heart and soul of the film lies in the struggles of the peasants and their faith. Not to forget the inquisitors who offer surprising levity.
So masterful directing and a solid cast, what must it be that holds the film back? The screenplay for Silence was a collaboration between director Scorsese and Jay Cocks. The running time comes in a bit under three hours, and the film lumbers for most of it. Just as often as I was in awe of the spectacular direction was I crushed beneath the shambling length. It wouldn’t have even taken stringent editing to reduce the run time of the film. It would be fairly simple to reduce this by 45 minutes and retain the entire story.
The film repeats itself to tedium as events occur again and again. By the end of the film I’ve seen the same betrayal and the same scene renouncing Jesus countless times. The film crackles at its heart but the end of the film in particular drags. So much so that you’re left wondering when you might be saved by the roll of the credits.
Silence is an example of how poor pacing and a bloated script can hamstring masterful directing and gorgeous cinematography. My first impressions were good but as my opinion matures the more indifferent I become. Weighing those long stretches of nothing against the flashes of brilliance. Either way it is still certainly worth your time. With its powerful themes of the line between devotion and fanaticism and luscious cinematography. Just try not to strain your eyes from rolling them when Jesus starts to talk to Andrew Garfield.