An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.
Martin Scorsese has proven to be a consistent a filmmaking force over the years, having succeeded in multiple eras of cinema where other directors may have lost touch with their audience. But while consistency in his filmography reigns, the accessibility of his projects in recent years vary wildly.
It’s hard to think of a Scorsese movie that exemplifies this better that “Silence.” It represents a long-gestating passion project for the director, about Christian priests searching for their missing mentor in 1600s Japan, where the religion is not only outlawed, but met with swift brutality.
It’s easy to say that “Silence” has a straightforward premise; it certainly isn’t tough to follow, even when the seemingly intimate story occasionally lends itself to broad, epic strokes of storytelling.
Rather, it’s the underlying tale of conflicting religious and cultural ideologies that makes “Silence” one of Scorsese’s most profound works to date.
That the movie, clocking in at a little over two and a half hours, tells a story that simultaneously self-contained and transcendent of its setting is a testimony to Scorsese’s script, which he worked on alongside Jay Cocks.
Scorsese’s seemingly lifelong interest in the project is absolutely on display here. Consequently, some in the audience will find it hard to engage on an emotional level with what they see on screen, whether it’s because they were expecting something more in the veins of the frenetic “The Wolf of Wall Street” or they can’t relate with the characters in terms of belief in a higher power.
But the ones who can engage on an emotional, even spiritual, level might find themselves deep in thought at various points in the film, particularly at moments of discussion between Andrew Garfield’s priest Rodrigues and the anti-Christian Inquisitor. These intellectual clashes serve to show that there’s not really a traditional good guy and bad guy in “Silence”; just a difference in perspective.
Speaking of perspective, Rodrigo Preto conjures up imagery behind the camera that is nothing short of majestic, a visual contrast to the figurative nothingness suggested by the film’s title. In a year with many superbly-shot films, “Silence” demands a seat at the table.
Fog is a pervading element in the movie, acting as nature’s answer to the wisps of doubt that slowly creep into Rodrigues’ mind. And the use of Christian imagery at the most unexpected of moments is chilling, if not meant to make us feel a similar weight that is on Rodrigues’ shoulders.
Garfield is fine here, enduring through initial impressions of having been miscast with a performance that becomes more physically demanding the more he looks like Jesus himself. Adam Driver, as the priest Garupe, is acceptable with the unexpectedly limited screentime he has, and Liam Neeson is expectedly satisfying as the vulnerable missing priest Ferreira.
Meanwhile, it’s silence itself that feels like it has the most noteworthy performance, a character in its own right that almost acts as a mediator in the proceedings. There’s the figurative silence that Rodrigues must grapple with in his journey, but the virtual lack of any score in the film gives a certain amount of levity to the narrative.
At times the technique makes “Silence” feel like a historical documentary (which, to an extent, it is, having basis in fact). Other times it’s authority is so pertinent that we hope for just a pin drop to break the tension. On that end, Scorsese delivers with the occasional, but extremely vivid, display of brutality.
The modern cinema is a place where most movies are rife with spectacle that is as easy to absorb as it perhaps is to forget. “Silence” instead is formidable in its resolve to remind us that the physical lack of cinematic bombast can be even louder, and certainly more thought-provoking.
Scorsese is offering us an invitation to the table where identity and culture collide in constant conflict; whether that’s under the authority of a hanging crucifix or not is up to us.
“Silence” is rated R for some disturbing violent content
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano
Directed by Martin Scorsese