Martin Scorsese’s most overtly religious film since 1995’s The Last Temptation of Christ is at once a far cry from his more familiar output, yet familiar in its exploration of themes of conviction and doubt in the Catholic faith. His blustering, aggressive camerawork is replaced with an almost entirely still, stoic study of the effect of Catholic Jesuits in seventeenth-century Feudal Japan. Scattered villages sodden with mud and sparse, foggy beaches take the place of his trademark cityscapes, while a scant, atmospheric score is heard in lieu of the usual Stones-heavy Scorsese playlist. Thematically, it’s textbook Scorsese. Aesthetically, it’s anything but.
Silence follows Catholic Jesuits Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), the Catholic “Army of Two” on a mission from the Portuguese colony of Macau, determined to discover the fate of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), the head of the last Jesuit mission to Japan, who is rumoured to have renounced his faith. Finding that their religion has been forced underground by a wave of brutal persecutions by the Japanese authorities that see Catholicism as detrimental and destabilising to their country, they help reinvigorate the villages they seek refuge in, while edging ever closer to discovering the fate of Ferreira.
An almost three-hour running time is nothing new for the veteran filmmaker, but while Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street and Gangs of New York (for all its faults) breeze by in a haze of violent excitement, Silence feels punishing in its lengthy running time. That’s not to say that it’s boring, as it’s just a different type of gripping – it’s a punishment on the viewer that feels utterly necessary to empathise with the punishment of our protagonists. Reminiscent in more ways than one of the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, it’s clear that Silence is one of Scorsese’s passion projects. Having first conceived the idea in Japan during the filming of Kurosawa’s Dreams in the late eighties, it’s a project that has been decades in the making.
I found myself unsure of what motivated Scorsese, who also co-wrote the script with Jay Cocks, to make the film. Is he exploring the powerful contradictions of the Catholic faith? Is it a comment on colonial intrusion? Is it examining the arrogance and superiority of white Europeans in the Age of Exploration? Does he see the young Jesuits as heroes in examining the strength of their convictions? Or is he parodying their Christ complex? While Scorsese is too intelligent a filmmaker and Silence too complex a film for it to neatly fall into any one category, my mind was changed repeatedly throughout the running time, none more so than when I saw the film was dedicated to the memory of the Catholic Jesuits who died during the persecution.
His casting choices are inspired: while Ciaran Hinds and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Liam Neeson are always dependable, his two young leads Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield both give sublime performances, as does Yôsuke Kubozuka. Garfield’s Father Rodrigues is an archetypal Scorsese protagonist in that Silence is driven by his desires; his narration revealing his honest feelings about those he interacts with. There is something of Travis Bickle about him, in the complexity of his motivations, from scene to scene jumping between self-sacrifice and self-obsession, a line that Garfield walks masterfully. Rarely does a Scorsese protagonist receive any semblance of redemption, and to an extent Father Rodrigues is left lamenting his egg noodles and ketchup – but that’s largely dependent on the sympathy you feel for his initial cause anyway.
Loving Scorsese’s films as much as I do, I did question whether, during some of the slower moments, I would have given another director as much leeway. Having just seen it the once, it is hard to know for sure, as it is a film that I’d suggest requires repeat viewings. However, my initial thoughts are that, as a deeply personal and beautifully crafted addition to his brilliant canon, Silence is a flawed masterpiece.
Silence is showing at most cinemas until Wednesday 18 January
Silence on IMDb