Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yōsuke Kubozuka, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Issey Ogata Running Time: 159 minutes
It will be interesting to see the Irish reception to Silence, a film about struggling with the Catholic faith that’s been mulling around in the head of Martin Scorsese for some 25 years. Though it’s oppression of the Church rather than by it that leads to the crisis of belief the Jesuit priests of the film encounter, their struggle will no doubt resonate with many viewers here. And in fairness, be of complete indifference to others. As a quiet and understated story of suffering, it’s a stylistic departure from recent bombastic displays from the veteran director, but hidden in the performances of its leads are similar themes of determined men and their (often self-aggrandising) efforts to succeed that have been consistent throughout his work. Suffering is all over this story, but when suffering is as glorified as is in Catholicism, at what point do the motivations of those who are suffering get called into question?
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, Silence sees two 17th century Jesuit priests embark on an ill-advised mission (from God or themselves?) to Japan to discover the whereabouts of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira witnessed first hand the violent push back against efforts to convert the Japanese, with Christianity long since outlawed in the land. The rumour is that Ferreira has renounced his faith, something which Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe. Enlisting the cowardly, faith-renouncing Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) as a guide, they leave Macau for Japan, but are quickly sidetracked from their goal, ministering to the desperately grateful local Christians and evading the Japanese officials who are looking to capture and apostasise the final priests in the country as a damning blow to the morale of the peasant converts. In these things, Rodrigues in particular finds great purpose. Played with gradually hardening naivety by Garfield, Rodrigues is flattered by the awe that the two priests are given and as Driver’s Garrpe recedes into the background and Ferreira remains elusive, he unravels as more and more of an interesting figure, particularly when his faith is tested.
Though his Portuguese accent is questionable, Garfield plays his character with subtlety befitting the filmmaking around him. Rather than the director’s traditional long Steadicams, the camera is still, frequently cramped in the spaces where Ferreira, Garrpe and Kichijiro are hiding or captured, as the film gradually grows more claustrophobically planted in Garfield’s perspective. His character is the one that wants relief from that, praying for some divine intervention, but all he gets is silence. Rodrigues’ Christ complex is a very interesting one, from his gradually growing beard onwards Christ imagery is all over his journey. As he sees himself, he’s a martyr, yet it’s frequently the Japanese around him that are doing the real suffering. Rather than torturing him directly, for the most part Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata) has the Japanese Christians around Rodrigues tortured, to guilt him into giving up his faith. Their pain is taken on as his own, something very much open to interpretation as either empathy or arrogance.
As someone using other characters to explore his own feelings about his religion, it’s unlikely Scorsese is unaware of this aspect of his main character. He even has his own Judas Iscariot figure in Kichijiro. Despite having more screentime than higher-billed Western actors like Driver, Neeson or even cameo drop-in Ciarán Hinds, Kubozuka is unlikely to receive many plaudits but he is a real standout in this role. He gives this constant betrayer, whose backstory is genuinely harrowing, the versatility needed for the audience to see him through the main character’s eyes; first pitiful, then loathsome, even comical as his double crosses reach Gollum levels. After a brief glimpse at the beginning, the film keeps the audience waiting for their Liam Neeson gravitas, again tying the audiences’ reactions with that of its lead. The quest to find his possibly wavering mentor and the absence of God to Rodrigues converge and diverge in the narrative. Scorsese shows that he doesn’t need to go big and loud with his films to be effective, though the film isn’t problem free.
The way that the perspectives of the Japanese Christians are further and further drowned out by their screams to test the white lead (and by proxy the white director and mostly white audience), particularly in the second half of the film, may prove to be a sticking point for some. Though Scorsese avoids drawing out their punishment into outright grotesque, it’s unquestionable that their crucifixions, beheadings etc are worse than what the protagonist has to endure directly. This is of course a story Scorsese and Jay Cocks (a collaborator also on The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York) have adapted from a Japanese writer but it is a something that can prevent Rodrigues’ arc from paying off for some. The stylistic choices, a barely-there score and stock-still camera make sense for the atmosphere – small Japanese villages terrified of persecution – but at over two hours long there are occasions where a break from the reverence would be welcomed.
Still, Scorsese’s skill in character exploration is as strong as ever, helping to make Silence a definite must-see. It’s gorgeous to look at throughout too, with the waterside villages, Japanese countrysides and various religious hallucinations and allegories (the most sledgehammer the film gets with its themes) resembling the kind of grave art that might have been made in a time period appropriate to the setting. There is no irony to the film’s title, it definitely requires a certain amount of patience some viewers may be unwilling to give, but there are rewards to be found here undoubtedly. You will discover, probably before he does, that Garfield’s character is battling not to prove his faith or find purpose in it, but to redeem it. The first day of 2017 will bring its first great film.(4 / 5)