Silence is visually stunning.
Few names carry more weight in the director’s chair than Martin Scorsese, and the 75-year-old has been highly selective over the last decade, helming just four feature-length films: The Departed, Hugo, Shelter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street. His fifth film since 2005 is Silence, which Scorsese identified as a passion project he developed over more than two decades.
In the mid-1600s, Jesuit priests from Europe sought to bring Catholic beliefs to Japan. They were met with extraordinary resistance from ruling leaders in the country, however, forcing those that would follow a Christian God to do so in secret.
Silence begins with news that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese priest living in Japan, has renounced his faith under torture and taken up residence there. Ferreira’s disciples, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), cannot believe the letter to be true and ask to travel to Japan to find Ferreira.
Despite the danger, the two priests are given leave to carry out the mission, hiring a Japanese fisherman named Kichijiro to bring them ashore in secret and serve as their guide. Upon arriving they find dozens of villagers worshipping in secret, and the priests are forced to hide during the day since the risk of being discovered (or turned in for silver) is too great.
Eventually the priests split up in an attempt to find some trace of Ferreira, but Rodrigues is taken captive by the feared Inquisitor Inoue and transported to Nagasaki. There he’s forced to watch the suffering of other imprisoned Japanese Christians, all in an attempt by the Inquisitor to get Rodrigues to apostatize his faith and prove Christianity cannot work in Japan.
From a visual perspective, Silence is stunning. The countryside of Taiwan (standing in for 17th century Japan) offers all kinds of amazing views and scenery, and that beauty juxtaposed to the horrific acts being committed proves to be a powerful combination. For instance, one of the first scenes shows priests being burned with the water from hot springs. It’s simultaneously gruesome yet spectacular.
While the subject matter is grim, it’s also very interesting. Certainly many aspects of the spread of Christianity are very well known and have been covered and/or romanticized in film, most notably the crusades, but this isn’t one of them. Scorsese does yeoman’s work in filling the viewer in on the historical elements of what we’re watching and keeps it engaging.
There’s nary a poor performance in the film, led by Garfield, who prior to this and Hacksaw Ridge was pretty much exclusively known for his turn as Peter Parker in the meh Amazing Spider-Man films. Driver and Neeson do well in supporting roles, but it’s Issei Ogata, a complete unknown to U.S. audiences, that steals scenes with his unique delivery and behaviour as the Inquisitor.
At more than two and a half hours, Silence is an undertaking, particularly given how much of the film deals with the horrific treatment of Japanese Christians during this time. It’s the same kind of feeling that Passion of the Christ engendered when presenting this “raw” look at how sadistic people were eventually reaches a point when you don’t really need to see the 10th different way they killed or tortured these people.
We respect the decision to go that route, and you could argue that not showing it would do a disservice to the subject matter being presented, but we wonder how many people will want to watch the film more than once despite how engaging it is.
THE BONUS FEATURES
There’s only one extra, but it checks in at a fairly meaty 20-plus minutes. It talks about how long Scorsese has been interested in the project, and the arduous road to make it happen. They probably could’ve split it into a few different extras. Instead it’s a solid “catch all” that’s worth a watch if you want a little more info on the subject matter and the project’s back story.
Equal parts beautiful and brutal, Silence is one of the most interesting and memorable films we’ve seen in a long time.