Michael Lee explores Martin Scorsese’s passionate pilgrimage.
Silence is a decadent purging of the soul from American cinema’s most esteemed auteur powerhouse, Martin Scorsese. Well into his seventies and still seemingly at the peak of his powers and punching some seriously heavy cinematic weight. Silence perhaps isn’t the usual fanfare audiences have grown to expect from Scorsese, whose oeuvre is often defined by his more gritty streetwise character driven realism. But the roots of Catholicism/Spirituality have always ran deep throughout the personal cinema of Martin Scorsese, from the moral complications and religious fervor of Mean Streets and The Last Temptation of Christ, to the meditative explorations of Kundun; and Silence is perfectly at home in this tradition.
Silence is a long gestating passion project, which has been lingering in development hell for the most part of three decades and which finally came to fruition in the year of our Lord 2016. It’s an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s esteemed novel about two 17th century Jesuits in Japan. The script for Silence is keenly labored by the hearts and minds of Scorsese and his frequent collaborator in kind Jay Cocks, who’s also lent his services to such projects as The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. This marks Scorsese at his most philosophical and meditative, Silence is a film which is unashamedly centered around the nature of faith and to be even more specific, what does it mean to renounce one’s faith publicly,to apostatize. In all honesty, this is probably going to be a pretty tough sell for mainstream audiences, and a pretty trying theme to explore, but if your prepared to accept the film on its own terms and not the film you want it to be, it rewards richly.
When the film kicks off we immediately set foot into a dangerous world where Christianity is outlawed,and believers are tortured, maimed, and even crucified if they don’t renounce their faith. Icy waves break across limp figures hanging from crosses. Spectators fearfully watch from the cliffs. In the thick of it, in the jungle wilds of seventeenth century Japan, on a clandestine mission driven by faith two Jesuits, Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield), Garpe (Adam Driver), set off to retrieve their enigmatic mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They become lost in a hostile world, soaked in fear, but bound by their sense of duty and belief. Ferreira disappeared on the missions in Japan, but is rumored to have apostatized, Rodriguez and Garupe cast doubt on this assumption and persuade Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) to let them find him.
Andrew Garfield is a terrific actor, and bears a certain naivety or virginal lamb-like quality which seems perfectly suited for the loss of innocence his character undergoes. But somehow he still feels miscast, the role of Rodriguez necessitated an internal psychological battle of faith, and needed an actor of a more introverted caliber who could express the intense magnitude of his faith. No disrespect but this somehow seems beyond the scope of Garfield’s present ability as an actor. Someone like Oscar Issac, or Paul Dano could have done it or even a young Martin Sheen, and it would have yielded a more promising result, perhaps grounding the picture in a clearer emotional reality. Ultimately, Garfield is hampered by a dense tough script, which at times puts theme before character, and which arguably compromises the picture. Adam Driver excels as the taciturn Garupe. Ciaran Hinds gives a steely turn as Valignano. And Liam Neeson is masterfully restrained in his performance as the enigmatic Ferreira, who for all appearances seems to have strayed from the Christian path.
Visually, Silence is drenched in epicness, unfettered in the scale of Scorsese’s vision and almost David Leanean in its scope. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto crafts a cinematic tapestry woven by a master, rich in detail and texture yet retaining a clear visual economy. The rocky coastal faces are stretched out like bodies, the hellish cave’s suffocating, and the haunting dullness of the sky bleaches what would otherwise be paradise. Making it feel like an oppressive limbo, a no mans land between heaven and hell. With regards to music, Scorsese has opted for a sparse minimal score by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge to accompany the film, but really it contributes little to the identity of the film. This seems unfortunate as Silence could have benefited greatly from a score designed to help give insight into the internal struggle of faith for Father Rodriguez and Father Garupe.
At the core of Silence, Scorsese seems to be asking, when reality is at its bleakest and you’re left drifting through purgatory, in the hope of eternal salvation, is it possible to maintain the light of hope in what seems to be total darkness? We’re also given a sense of the struggle of the conflicting philosophical positions of the West and the East. But this is limited by sticking entirely to Rodriguez’s perspective. I suspect giving some more insight into the alternative position could have strengthened our ability to empathize with Rodriguez.
Silence is a film which, at times, lingers in its own profundity, and, in moments, gets weighted down by exposition. But Scorsese is uncompromising in his devotion to his approach, bringing us on an unholy pilgrimage, illuminating the possibility for doubt to not just compromise our faith, but actually to strengthen it. It’s the kind of film I’m really on the fence about, I’ll either love it or hate it, but in my gut I suspect it will hold up much better under a second viewing. If the auteur filmmaking philosophy was two films for the Studio, one for me, then make no mistake this one’s for Scorsese and he’s earned it.