Questions of faith lie at the heart of Silence. Adapting the novel by Shusaku Endo, director Martin Scorsese visually relishes visiting the time period of 17th century Japan and the horrors that met Christian missionaries upon entering some foreign lands. Why visit these lands to spread the Word, if by doing so only causes the deaths of the converted? Would God rather you turn your back on him if the alternative just causes more torturous death? There is no doubt that the questions being asked here are not the frivolous found next door in the latest action flick.
No, the fault in the film doesn’t lie in the questions being asked, nor in its incredible production values on display. Where Silence begins to slip is in its first hour, during which our protagonists are reduced to merely bystanders to the dominoes falling around them. As we watch three men die on crosses erected in an inlet that floods at high tide, we do so from a detached perspective, with star Andrew Garfield’s ever-present narration emotionally as distant as we feel while watching the horror before us.
Silence follows the journey of two 17th century Portuguese Catholic priests, Garfield’s Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver). They have asked to be sent to Japan to investigate the fate of a Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whose last correspondence took many months to reach them and is now rumored to have abandoned the faith. It isn’t long after being quietly smuggled into the country before Rodrigues and Garrpe learn how bad things are in Japan for the followers of the outlawed religion. The Inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), seemingly takes pleasure in inflicting punishment upon the poor village farmers who are more liable to practice Catholicism, and his methods are just as cruel as any inquisition that have made the history books. Soon finding himself captured, Rodrigues begins to wonder if the silence that meets his prayers is just part of God’s plan, or if it’s another clue pointing toward his effort leading to so much cruelty is due more to his ego than his faith.
Once Silence immerses us into Rodrigues’ trials, finally transforming him into a true participant of the events happening at the time, the film finds itself on firmer ground. The film’s most riveting scenes involve Rodrigues’ verbal exchanges with those around him, from Garrpe’s haphazard suggestions on finding the missing Ferreira to Inoue’s endless attempts at getting the young priest to denounce his faith and end the persecution of those suffering. Rodrigues clings to ideals, bringing a quiet mournfulness to these efforts.
Between this film and the 2016 war biopic Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield announces to those working behind the scenes of the film industry that he has left the comic book world of Spider-Man behind, and is ready for serious roles again. The young actor’s work here is uneven at times – in some scenes he openly lacks the motivation needed to properly express what his character is experiencing – yet he commands attention during emotionally charged scenes that would flounder with someone less talented handling the load. He is also able to hold his own when working opposite Neeson, another actor visually appreciative to leave the world of the major releases that he has anchored in recent years in order to act under Scorsese.
Silence may be the most uneven film of Scorsese’s career. Just as the viewer begins to believe that the effort is pure self-indulgence, a scene takes on a beauty that you can’t fathom anyone else behind the camera bringing it to the screen. The askewness of the movie doesn’t cause it to become one of the few on the auteur’s resume to be safely labeled “bad” per se, but one can’t help but wonder if this will become more of an intellectual curiosity over the years than a cinematic marvel. Scorsese’s interest in exploring the religious themes inherent with the story’s plot takes away quite a bit of the focus from the characters in any means that doesn’t relate to religion. Perhaps its biggest issue is an opening hour that is a slog, a situation that is deadly for a film within spitting distance of a three hour running time. It may be hard for fans of the great filmmaker to hear aspersions being cast at their idol, but by the end of a meandering epilogue even the most stoic of these admirers may walk out thinking, “Well, it may not have been great, but there sure was a lot of it!”
Silence is the kind of film that folks will talk about for years; whether the talk is positive or negative will depend on the crowd. It’s not afraid to address issues that are universal, and not in the way that the latest political piece is considered universal. Unfortunately, the pre-release buzz that Scorsese was being rushed by Paramount to meet an awards-eligible deadline appears to be true, as questionable choices in “takes” are joined by a floundered post-production line readings and poor editing decisions at times. The legendary auteur seemed to take those time pressures and rely too much on some of his earlier religious explorations, such as The Last Temptation of Christ, not taking into account the flaws that those films had with pacing as well. Silence should be experienced on the big screen, if for no other reason than its visual beauty, but be forewarned that it requires a patience that few films ask of its audience these days.