Martin Scorsese has gained enough points throughout his illustrious career to be a box office draw all by himself, but with the release of a 170-minute-long film displaying the trials of Jesuit missionaries I think he may have found the limit that his name has. People expect more of the same and with the release of Silence Scorsese has surely not given people what they expect. It was for this reason that four people left the cinema during the screening of Silence that I attended. Although it is hardly likely that a lack of box office will reduce the legendary director’s clout in the industry, especially when the film is a stunning example of cinematography and sound design.
Silence announces itself to its audience, it opens with a black screen and ambient noises of cicadas increases until it is deafening before cutting out completely as the title reveals itself. It’s a powerful opening to what proceeds to be a powerful film. The film follows the Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) as they travel to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). They travel to Japan where Catholicism has been outlawed and priests and catholic practitioners are being executed and tortured in increasingly cruel ways. The film’s premise has similarities to Apocalypse Now and it mimics the film’s mood effectively, with knowledge of Copolla’s masterpiece creating an additional sense of dread surrounding the mentor, Ferreira’s fate.
Silence constantly shows that it is a film that has the potential to follow the Scorsese mould of brutal violence but does not indulge in it. People are seen being burned alive wrapped up in wicker like sushi, stacked upon each other like firewood. It is terrible and unforgiving but the scenes of violence merely service the true message of the film and they are used sparingly and effectively. Scorsese has the ability to tell another violent story, but it is not his prerogative. He wants to open up a conversation about other things now. Like the release of Hugo, this is a passion project for him and it shines through in a levelhandedness and a genuine moral ambiguity. The aggressive back and forth dialogue so associated with his films is replaced with voices of concern.
In all of Scorsese’s most successful films there is a narrative to be the best, to hop into a pond at the start of the film and end up as the biggest fish. It is true of Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator and more. This leads to his films having clear paths of progression; suits become more fitting, wives become prettier and characters become experts in their respective fields. It’s a reason why Scorsese speaks to so many people, it is aspirational filmmaking with a coat of gloss.
What occurs in Silence I would argue is the same type of progression, Rodrigues faces more and more testing trials, there is a clear path of regression. He goes from a marble church in Portugal to a wooden shack in a rainy Japanese mountain and only goes down from there. Yet Rodrigues’ hero is not a Casino mogul or a Wall St banker, he aspires to be like that most idolised of heroes, Jesus Christ. Instead of making money and spending money his path to imitating the success of his idol is through martyrdom. He endures tortures that test his ability to keep his faith and the tortures keep escalating. In a sense this is the polar-opposite of a traditional Scorsese flick while still retaining the narrative structure.
Andrew Garfield is put under a lot of pressure with his performance, for the majority being the only English speaker on screen. He does himself proud while performing with a difficult Portuguese accent and a wealth of dialogue. Whilst his accent does slip in places it does not take away from the film and he should be commended for the range he can apply to his character’s despair. Driver is a more divisive character who show reservations and doubts but plays it well, whereas Liam Neeson simply refuses to attempt to change his voice for the role. Which, I admit, made me laugh out loud. It is a brave choice to commit actors to accented roles but to contrast this with Neeson talking in his droll Northern Irish tones after two hours of Portuguese and Japanese is baffling.
The film has issues with being somewhat too indulgent in its moral quandaries, most notably with its ending, which drags on for much longer than needed to state something which doesn’t need to be said. For a film that values the power of Silence in filmmaking it sure screams its conclusion in your face. Its message of Religion is not always the most cinematic but it constantly finds a way to be interesting.
This is Scorsese on a philosophical level, on the surface it is a no thrills affair that could leave the average viewer bored if they go in expecting Godfellas. There is a wealth of drama hidden beneath the surface and the multiple methods of torture and brutality should haunt viewers.
It is an impassioned movie for a select audience who should be fascinated by its portrayal and it should be rewarded for not taking the easy route of constantly criticising the specifics of religion. For those not interested in religious discussion it still possesses an intense emotional central arc which provokes thought on a personal, as well as parochial level.