Director - Martin Scorsese
Cast - Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano
Rating - 5/5
Two things will happen as you watch Silence.
First, you will be overwhelmed – as would most people – by the sheer immensity of the story that you have just witnessed. It runs dangerously close to three hours after all. Second, you will be left with a profound sense of inadequacy – towards yourself, the education that has been wasted on you, and the years of being alive on this strange and wonderful planet that have in no way prepared you for the staggering achievement that is Martin Scorsese’s new picture.
Thousands of films down, as someone who still isn’t used to watching formidably long films – it wasn’t always like this, but times have changed, and with them, the ability to remain attentive – I have come to realise that there are only a handful of directors who can command my attention for periods exceeding two hours. There is perhaps Quentin Tarantino (but even he has his weaknesses)... Maybe Nuri Bilge Ceylan... But the only filmmaker who has remained as gripping as he was even decades ago, is Martin Scorsese.
For as long as he has been making movies – and it has been quite the journey, almost as epic as the one portrayed in this movie – he has been asking the same questions.
Faith. Why must we have it? Must we have it at all? And do we – can we – comprehend it?
There are no simple answers to this, and perhaps that is why Scorsese is still making movies. Were he to find his answer, he would have nothing to say, no questions to ask, no dreams to chase. It is his White Whale, or, more appropriately, his Holy Grail.
Sometimes he will ask it sneakily, almost like a knife in the back, like when Harvey Keitel is torn between the Catholicism he was born into and the allure of the Mafia in Mean Streets, or the faith in the law that Billy Costigan clinches to in The Departed, even as all the signs suggest he should wise up. On other occasions – like Kundun, or The Last Temptation of Christ – the questions are not asked from the confines of a confessional, but are bellowed from atop a mountain.
And that is how it is in Silence, which is ironically the loudest Scorsese has ever been.
For 28 years, Scorsese has wanted to tell the story of Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, played by a visibly broken Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, and their quest to locate their mentor Father Ferreira (a skeletal Liam Neeson), which takes them to the unfriendly shores of 17th Century Japan.
For 28 years, Scorsese had been denied; his faith, perpetually balanced on the edge, questioned.
The journey that both Rodrigues and Garupe take in the film could be seen as a parallel to the one Scorsese had undertaken to get it made. It is God who has compelled them to travel to Japan, aboard rickety boats, braving terrible weather, to the same unwelcoming land where their mentor had once arrived to spread their religion.
Ferreira’s final letter brought bad news. Catholics across Japan were being persecuted and murdered in the most horrible ways, to purge the land of what was thought to be an interference, a desecration of ancient ways. To survive, the last remaining believers were made to publically renounce their God – which, according to Father Ferreira’s letter, is what he has done. To prove to their superiors, and mostly to themselves, that Ferreira’s faith was above question, they journey to Japan.
Like most movies, Silence, too, has its faults. But to list them would be disrespectful of a film that, in my opinion, could not have been made by another human being. It is Scorsese at his most passionate. This is a towering work, challenging, complex, and gruelling. But it positively dares you to look away – even when the static, unusual, almost Ozu-like frames of DP Rodrigo Prieto burst into sudden violence and the deceptive tranquil Japanese seas slowly drown the crucified Catholics under its tide.
Despite the sweeping scope, what would otherwise be small observations - like the Japanese not being able to confess their sins for years because there was no priest to listen to them, surviving, consumed by an overwhelming guilt – is where the film’s heart lies.
Perhaps this film is too kind towards the Jesuit priests and their Mission. Perhaps it is too quick to ignore the other side of the story in its haste to sympathise with its tortured heroes. Perhaps what it needs is a touch of Clint Eastwood, a Battle of Iwo Jima-style retelling from the Buddhist perspective.
Undoubtedly, the most intriguing character in the film is a drunk named Kichijiro, who has renounced his faith so many times that even the villainous Shogunate, and the over-the-top old samurai who heads it, has lost its patience, and respect. It begs the question: If faith, an almost unfathomable spiritual notion, can be renounced with the simple, coarse act of stepping on an image of Christ, then is it even strong enough to preserve?
Is it foolish to expect answers, even from a film as great as this?