A Second Look at ‘Silence’

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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.

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Review: Silence

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DIR: Martin Scorsese • WRI: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks • PRO: Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Dante Ferretti • MUS: Kathryn Kluge, Kim Allen Kluge • CAST: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tabanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Shinya Tsuckamoto, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issey Ogata, Yoshi Oida

Religion has always had prevalence in Martin Scorsese’s work. The veteran director grew up in Little Italy. It was a community polarised by religion and organised crime, perhaps more specifically by Catholicism and violence. His upbringing manifested in his early filmography, the French New Wave influenced Who’s That Knocking on My Door (1967) and Mean Streets (1973). Especially in Mean Streets as the films protagonist overtly struggles between his devout Catholicism and his gangster lifestyle. Mean Streets coupled with Goodfellas (1990) solidified Scorsese as the quintessential gangster filmmaker, surpassing Francis Ford Coppola, and spawning many inferior copycats.

However, if you look at Scorsese’s filmography as a whole it suggests a very different kind of filmmaker. Mobsters only make up a percentage of his modus operandi. Catholic guilt has always been an undercurrent of Scorsese’s work through symbolism and imagery, some subtle, some not so subtle in his films. Silence is Scorsese’s 3rd film after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) where religion is the pervading theme. Rather than hidden in his character’s psyche, it is out there plain to see and to deliberate on.

Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priest Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver) who travel to Japan for a duel propose. They are to preach and practice outlawed Catholicism and to find their mentor, Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira is rumoured to have apostatised and taken up the Buddhist religion, a slander unfathomable for the young idealist priests. From the beginning Scorsese doesn’t hold back on crucifixion imagery. The opening is brutal, harkening back to Mel Gibson’s notorious The Passion of the Christ (2004). Thankfully, Scorsese spares us from witnessing such cruelty at length, save from a couple of scenes later on in the film.

Silence, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, paints a gorgeous and treacherous journey for the Jesuits. A sense of adventure is felt as they first swim to the shores of Japan (Silence was actually shot in Taiwan). The huge risk they are taking is always there, highlighted by the films grim opening scenes.  They will encounter secret Christian villages. The trials of the villagers in the name of their God will test the limits of their pure and devout Catholicism.

Rodrigues is very much the film’s protagonist. It is an excellent performance from Andrew Garfield as a man whose very purpose in life is questioned and whose faith is tested to its very limitations as Japanese Buddhists torture anyone who declares themselves Catholic. Importantly Rodrigues himself isn’t subjected to physical torture but the Japanese endeavour to break him mentally. Rodrigues is God’s representative on earth, can he stand by and witness such immeasurable cruelty, as God’s silence exposes him to the harshest of mental anguish. The role was initially meant for Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who for obvious reasons would be better physically and vocally equipped to play a Portuguese Jesuit. In his absence however it is no surprise that Scorsese was drawn to Garfield, his appearance uncanny to the popular artist rendering of Christ. His face brings a certain boyish innocence to a tough role. A career highlight to date.

With Silence Scorsese asks many universal religious questions without attempting to provide any answers. He doesn’t have an argument, rather a burning passion and an intense interest in the question of religion itself. Allegories can be found in the modern world, decapitated Christian heads remind one of Islamist extremism but this is not Scorsese’s raison d’etre. Scorsese is interested in the relationship between religion and humanity throughout time. This disparity is awe-inspiring for him and this seeps onto the screen with some of his best filmmaking in years. Gone is the frenzied style of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Departed (2006). Silence is made with care and devotion. It is a film that will get everyone who pays attention thinking, questioning, even the atheists among us.

Tom Crowley

161 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Silence is released 1st January 2017

Silence– Official Website

 

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Competition: Win a copy of ‘Silence’ on DVD

To coincide with the DVD release, the mighty people at Element have given us 3 copies of Pat Collins’ beautiful film Silence to give away.

A meditation and odyssey, Silence traces the psycho-geographical journey undertaken by an enigmatic soundman from his adopted city of Berlin to his native Donegal.

To win a copy of the DVD, simple send the name of the soundman (who is also the film’s writer and co-scenarist) to filmireland@gmail.com

The competition is open until lunchtime Thursday, 22nd November – at which point the much loved, yet rarely worn, Film Ireland Hat will determine the winners.

Element Pictures Distribution announce the Irish DVD release of Pat Collins’ critically-acclaimed feature debut Silence.  Silence is available to buy on DVD from 16th November.  Stockists include Tower RecordsGolden Discs and the IFI shop or you can buy the DVD online from the Element Pictures Distribution Shop or as a digital download on Volta

Silence DVD PurchasePurchase on DVD from the Element Pictures Distribution shop

VoltaStream or Download online on Volta (Ireland only)

www.silencefilm.ie

 

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Issue 140 Spring 2012 Irish Playwrights & Screenwriters Guild: Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde

Continuing our series of articles from members of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild, writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde tells us about his experiences as a co-writer on the screenplay for Silence which is currently in cinemas.

 

It was as early as 2006 when Pat Collins asked if I’d work with himself and his wife, Sharon Whooley, on an idea they had for a feature film. He told how the story would involve a sound-recordist, who was given the strange task of making field recordings in areas free from man-made sound and that his work would take him to remote and out-of-the-way places throughout the country. I was intrigued. Although I hadn’t co-written anything before, I couldn’t turn down such an offer, and soon we got to work creating the landscape of what we could only hope someday would become a feature film.

 

I had gotten to know Pat and Sharon a few years previously, working as a translator on one or two of their documentaries, and the relationship we built over the years was really important to the creative process. I think you take a chance when you start to share new ideas and you need that common ground and understanding to allow yourself to open up creatively to others. We trusted each other from the start and I didn’t feel that the mistakes that I was bound to make as I foosthered in the dark would be thrown back at me too hard.

 

Writing is usually a solitary thing and quite personal. I think most writers don’t like to show their work to others until they know it’s almost finished and beyond influence, so the process of co-writing was a little tricky for me at first with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of work, but I soon began to enjoy it. That trust that we had built up turned out to be very important.

 

And then Pat asked if I would play the lead character in the film and my role in the film suddenly took a new twist. He felt that the main character should be someone who had an intimate connection with the script – that it would allow us to do things a little differently. I gave in and was happy to be fully involved; I loved the challenge.

 

Although we met and communicated often, I think the hardest part was pinning down exactly what we collectively wanted from the script. We all had our own ideas, but Pat directed the writing from the start and with an uncanny eye he could see when the script was veering off into unnecessary or overstated territory. I think the crucial thing about co-writing is striking a balance. Everyone wants something different from a piece of work but finding the common ground is the key and we found that early on.

 

I remember at the beginning there was a certain character that I’d introduced who changed the tone of the film somewhat. He was a wise old man who spoke of superstition and otherworldly things like an fear ocrach, the hunger spirit, and of course I thought he was great and he survived into later drafts. It was much later that it became apparent that the old man was giving us a bit of a bum steer in the film, his emphasis on the supernatural wasn’t quite right, so we decided to let him go. The point is that he was allowed to live until he proved himself unnecessary and his existence in turn created the space for other things to happen in the script. In the final draft remnants of him remain in spirit, and, in some way, he guided us in a certain direction that helped create part of the world that the film inhabits. Every idea becomes part of the shared consciousness of co-writing, and I learned that by allowing those ideas a space to live that you can create a world that you can navigate through. This is something I got to like about co-writing, it has a malleability that you don’t get with writing on your own because it lives in more than one mind and it can change independently of you, if you allow it.

 

Other times I felt I was trying too hard to impress the others and that I would steer the plot off in some direction of my own without being sensitive to the overall plot. Although, funnily, I’ve a feeling that might have focused the others on the true direction of the film and marked out the path a bit more clearly too. In co-writing I think you ultimately need one person in control and the others bringing all their ideas to the table; one person must have the final say and Pat was very clear on the direction that the film should take all along.

 

The most frustrating part of the process for myself, which eventually turned out to be the most liberating part, was Pat’s quiet insistence to avoid any direct narrative, or a narrative that was too obvious. I really was stumped at the beginning at how he managed not to be taken in by my clever attempts to tie everything up neatly in a narrative that gathered pace as the film developed. It was only later that I saw that he was purposefully eschewing narrative in order to let the more subtle nuances grow and gain ground in the film, and although I thought I understood this form of storytelling I soon learnt that, when it came to it, I hadn’t the same conviction as Pat.

 

As the writing continued I began to understand a little more about how Pat worked. He recognised the poetry in every single shot and knew how to space it to allow each scene to breath. It wasn’t about drama or subplots but about the feeling of that particular moment and how the authenticity of every emotion would make a scene work. If he didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the realness of a scene, he would drop it. There was no room for half-truths or trying to trick the audience by pulling the wool over their eyes; as far as Pat was concerned, it was all true or it had no place in the film. I think that that truth comes across in the final film. All those feelings we explore are in some way true and have been arrived at through his personal exploration of the scenes and situations that are played out on screen. I felt that even our own lives were in scrutiny in order that the reality of each moment could be explored. But it was a gentle scrutiny, almost standoffish, that let the real emotions show.

 

As we went into production, having being intimately involved in the writing of the script and with Pat’s guidance, I felt I was able to set the script aside and tease out the themes and conversations with the other actors in a way that felt real and free. It provided genuine situations where I could then try to get the other characters to say what the script had asked for, but in their own words, and this meant their reactions were real and not like acting at all. This is one of the strengths of the film, I think, and I couldn’t have achieved it without being part of the co-writing team.

 

Silence is a film that allows the viewer to participate in the story. It doesn’t shut you out but rather provides the space for your thoughts and meditation in a way that few films do. We set out to make a film that felt real and that gave the viewer a chance to experience something without feeling alienated, and I think with Silence that we have in some way achieved that.

http://www.harvestfilms.ie/silence

www.script.ie

 

Read Emmet O’Brien’s review of Silence here.

Silence was released on 27th July 2012

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Spring 2012 issue 140, published 6th February 2012.

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Cinema Review: Silence

DIR: Pat Collins WRI: Pat Collins, co-written by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride and Sharon Wooley PRO: Tina Moran DOP: Richard Kendrick ED: Tadhg O’Sullivan  Cast: Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, Andrew Bennett, Marie Coyne, Tommy Fahy.

 

Pitched somewhere between documentary and fictional film Silence gently eases us through a defiantly abstract story. It stars Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde as a man who is striving to capture silence on audio, or the closest approximation to it. Wandering across the Irish landscape he attempts to locate a place untouched by man-made noise to fuel this private obsession and the film employs a great deal of natural longueurs to illustrate the natural splendour of the countryside.

 

Eoghan’s crusade brings him into contact with a few different characters who like himself appear to live on the fringe of a world slightly more exaggerated than real life and it’s in this mingling of the real and fantasy that the film retains its mystery.

 

I notice that the character’s name which is shared by the actor is only uttered once in the film casually by an old man he converses with near the end, the line between improvising and script becoming blurred. The mix of professional actors and real people lends an unsteady air to the whole proceeding. With the lead also being an audio engineer outside his acting work this lends an authenticity to his role.

 

When divorced from the overriding idea of silence as an artistic or personal force the film is essentially a prodigal son story, the man afraid to return to the island of his youth, to the weighty silence of home. The character is very remote, letting very little personal information trickle out in his various conversations, his discussion with a writer erring on the side of abstract analysis, his conversation with another man being far more generalised.

 

It is interesting to note that it is when faced with a younger generation and through the Irish language (obviously a skill he does not employ in Berlin where he currently lives, one of the few concrete facts we are told about him) that he seems to open up the most when faced with the naivety of youth. The boy he discusses his life with seems to ask far more probing questions unknowingly than other adults featured. Perhaps the boy lacks a filter or finesse the other characters would have used when discussing such matters.

 

Visually stunning, the array of locations from Berlin via Cork, Mayo and Belfast amongst others is caught with a loving eye and an artist’s appreciation of scope. However I can’t deny that the film left me somewhat cold as the quest is somewhat academic and sterile and the character too vague. I understand this was a choice on its creator’s part and having a more conventional structure and protagonist would have run the risk of sentimentality I do wish there was more of a hook here. While trying to avoid maudlin clichés they fell afoul of the other extreme and have crafted a cold arty piece that while masterfully shot its fidelity to silence leaves all other senses out of the loop.

 

Emmet O’Brien

Rated G (see IFCO website for details)
87 mins

Silence is released on 27th July 2012

http://www.harvestfilms.ie/silence

 

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‘Silence’ Receives Theatrical Release on July 27th 2012

Eoghan is a sound recordist who is returning to Ireland for the first time in 15 years.  His reason for returning is a job offer: to find and record places free from man-made sound. His quest takes him away from towns and villages into remote terrain.

Throughout his journey, he is drawn into a series of encounters and conversations which gradually divert his attention towards a more intangible silence, one that is bound up with the sounds of the life he had left behind.

Influenced by elements of folklore and archive, Silence unfolds with a quiet intensity, where poetic images reveal an absorbing meditation on themes relating to sound and silence, history, memory and exile.

Winner of the MICHAEL DWYER DISCOVERY AWARD 2012 at JDIFF, Silence will be released in cinemas by Element Pictures Distribution on July 27th 2012.

Speaking on the release, Director/Writer  Pat Collins commented that “When a film is completed you feel a great sense of responsibility to the crew, the cast and to the work itself that this film should reach an audience.  And it’s a great thrill to have the film released in cinemas, where the film will look and sound its best.  When we were shooting this film, out in the Irish countryside we were always thinking of those big empty landscapes in terms of the big screen. I think the final film is how we originally envisaged it and that’s a good way to feel about a film.”

www.elementpictures.ie

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JDIFF 2012 Irish Cinema Review: Silence, Pat Collins and Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival

Irish: Silence

Thursday, 23rd February, 8:45pm, Light House

 

Pitched somewhere between documentary and fictional film Silence gently eases us through a defiantly abstract story. It stars Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde as a man who is striving to capture silence on audio, or the closest approximation to it. Wandering across the Irish landscape he attempts to locate a place untouched by man-made noise to fuel this private obsession and the film employs a great deal of natural longueurs to illustrate the natural splendour of the countryside.

 

Eoghan’s crusade brings him into contact with a few different characters who like himself appear to live on the fringe of a world slightly more exaggerated than real life and it’s in this mingling of the real and fantasy that the film retains its mystery.

I notice that the character’s name which is shared by the actor is only uttered once in the film casually by an old man he converses with near the end, the line between improvising and script becoming blurred. The mix of professional actors and real people lends an unsteady air to the whole proceeding. With the lead also being an audio engineer outside his acting work this lends an authenticity to his role.

 

In conversation with filmmaker Ken Wardrop following the screening the director Pat Collins told us that the treatment was at one both specific of back stories but loose regarding the framing of scenes. While certain beats and story moments had to be hit the tone of the piece feels elusive and stark.  Collins explains, ‘It began as an idea of the old time folk collector, the man who records stories for future generations.’ Utilizing some archive material which is interspersed throughout conveys that message of lineage economically and to great effect.

 

When divorced from the overriding idea of silence as an artistic or personal force the film is essentially a prodigal son story, the man afraid to return to the island of his youth, to the weighty silence of home. The character is very remote, letting very little personal information trickle out in his various conversations, his discussion with a writer erring on the side of abstract analysis, his conversation with another man being far more generalised.

 

It is interesting to note that it is when faced with a younger generation and through the Irish language (obviously a skill he does not employ inBerlinwhere he currently lives, one of the few concrete facts we are told about him) that he seems to open up the most when faced with the naivety of youth. The boy he discusses his life with seems to ask far more probing questions unknowingly than other adults featured. Perhaps the boy lacks a filter or finesse the other characters would have used when discussing such matters.

 

Visually stunning, the array of locations from Berlin via Cork, Mayo and Belfast amongst others is caught with a loving eye and an artist’s appreciation of scope. However I can’t deny that the film left me somewhat cold as the quest is somewhat academic and sterile and the character too vague. I understand this was a choice on its creators part and having a more conventional structure and protagonist would have run the risk of sentimentality I do wish there was more of a hook here. While trying to avoid maudlin clichés they fell afoul of the other extreme and have crafted a cold arty piece that while masterfully shot its fidelity to silence leaves all other senses out of the loop.

 

Emmet O’Brien
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