Silence (2016) Review

"Thematically rich, character-driven while concerned with a larger culture and picture"

by Steve Pulaski

Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that you don't work on something for an upwards of thirty years and not find something about it that's either revealing for your personally, a great thesis of your life and work, or some combination of both or maybe more. Martin Scorsese's Silence feels like one of the most personal statements the seventy-four-year-old director has yet to make in his long, storied career, as it's one that addresses faith, guilt, and righteousness, all themes which have been explored in most of his films.

The film revolves around two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who are sent from Portugal to Tomogi, Japan with two goals. The first is to spread Catholicism to a Japan that's predicated upon destroying or obscuring all Western influences, religion in particular. Throughout the film, we watch a samurai known as "the inquisitor" belittle and torture suspected Christians by having them step on a picture of Jesus, spit on religious artifacts, and punish them by way of drowning on the cross and various other methods of pure torment. The second goal of the priests is to find the whereabouts of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who was sent to Japan as a Jesuit priest several years ago and reportedly renounced his faith upon being tortured.

After residing in a ramshackle shed in the mountains, far away from civilization and persecution, Sebastião and Francisco go their separate ways. While Francisco goes to the village of Hirado in hopes that the persecution will leave the village of Tomogi if they, the priests, do too, Sebastião goes off to the last places Father Ferreira was known to be alive and reconnects with Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), the fisherman who was their guide during the initial leg of the trip.

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Cast Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Release Date 13 January 2017
Steve's Grade: B

It is with this separation that Sebastião's story becomes the prime focus of the film, as he grapples with his own personal faith, the nudging opportunities and insights that lead to doubt, and the idea of trying to remain god-fearing in a world that seems effectively godless. Sebastião repeatedly questions why God and Christ have chosen to be "silent" in a time of religious persecution and endless civilian suffering.

Forgoing the idea of free-will to a degree, it's an understandable question I'm sure many, even Scorsese, have struggled with and the fact that Scorsese, a devout Catholic, who has interwoven concepts of god-fearing, doubt, and moral bankruptcy into his films for several decades now, knows how to handle these themes. Garfield and Driver are his new contemporaries but are more than capable of being the poster-boys for such themes in a film that's just specific enough to drive a point home, yet just ambiguous and impressionistic enough to have their actions and personal stories be interpreted. Scorsese, per usual, gives his actors a lot of room to breath, which allows Garfield to be more effective emotionally during the film's more climactic moments and gives Liam Neeson room to be the wonderful actor we all know him to be.

Silence does find itself a bit too flabby and repetitive in the middle-section of the film, which largely focuses on the search for Father Ferreira and answers to questions Sebastião has that we, the audience, do not entirely know. This makes the midsection of the film drag a bit, but in some ways makes the overall journey more accurately conveyed. Silence is a journey of a film in a sense that Sebastião and Francisco are looking for both answer and closure, on top of an outlet to preach the gospel, a gospel they're not even entirely sure they believe. It's a debatably necessary part to the film as well, which leaves me convicted because if it was absent entirely, there's a good chance this part of the review would be devoted to me lamenting its absence.

Scorsese has loved putting his leading male characters at the cliff's edge of fame, watching them delicately balance for a good hour before seeing them struggle, fall, and crash to the bottom. Here, Sebastião isn't perched at the edge of fame, but at the edge of confidence, trying to believe that he holds similar or at least spiritually comparable powers of forgiveness and wisdom that Christ himself had. However, by the end, he's as uncertain as many of us, no longer able to fully preach the gospel of certainty, but exist around the corner with doubt while still keeping his faith.

It's not a tragic loss of faith, but it's an upsetting comedown, one that I'm sure people who sneer at watching men struggle to step on a picture of Christ will at least be able to formidably recognize.

Scorsese has also long portrayed godless environments and characters in his films; often they focus on men motivated by lust, ego, greed, and personal advancement to the point where their morals are clouded by impulsive wants. Godlessness pays in the momentary, we saw in Casino, a secular picture, and while characters like Frank Rothstein and Nicky Santoro don't face the wrath of God at the end, they face a comedown in wealth, power, and seniority by the closing credits of that picture. Silence isn't a deviation from that story, it's simply a look at one that recognizes that fact a little too well.

Thematically rich, character-driven while concerned with a larger culture and picture, and personal in a strong way, Martin Scorsese's Silence is the occasionally maddening but contemplative epic that services film and his filmography fittingly and commendably.


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