Review: Silence (2016)

Silence realises the account of two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face the ultimate test of faith when they travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). At a time when Christianity is firmly outlawed in Japan due to the invasion of Christian missionaries, their presence is absolutely forbidden. Martin Scorsese underwent a 28-year journey to bring Shusaku Endo’s 1966 acclaimed novel to life. Finally completed, Silence is widely considered his magnum opus.

Before I viewed Silence, I’d avoided all trailers and interviews; I didn’t know anything about the film besides the fact that it starred a particularly unkempt Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. The fact that it’s directed by Martin Scorsese served as my sole reason for giving this film a chance. Typically, his name garners images of Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio or an Italian-American theme; when the cinema screen revealed a 17th century Japan, I honestly had optimism.

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Liam Neeson as Padre Ferreira: a Portuguese priest with a Northern Irish accent.

The film opens with a jarring scene of Japanese torture. Liam Neeson’s Father Cristóvão Ferreira overlooks the scene, restrained by Japanese guards, as many of his brothers are broken before his eyes. Fast-forward to Portugal, and Ferreira’s final correspondence arrives months later via a Dutch trader, alongside word that he committed apostasy following torture. Unable to believe the letter and such a heinous rumour, his former pupils, Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver) insist that they must travel to Japan and find him, to ascertain his true fate.

Now, what is set up here is a grand trek across Japan, through Macau, in order to reach Nagasaki. Naturally, I imagined that the pair would traverse the dramatic landscape, only by night, hiding from the authorities and becoming one of the people. If, like me, this is what your mind conjures, you’ll be disappointed. Scorsese tends to linger in Silence. Where the narrative holds promise of adventure in a strange land, the reality is pretty much that of Rodrigues and Garupe hiding… all the time, performing secret masses at night to no more than two villages. While this may be attempting to uphold realism, it doesn’t make for an exciting watch.

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Rodrigues and Kitchijiro: one of many confessions – the only mild source of humour.

I’ll avoid saying anything more about the plot, so as not to spoil the few narrative developments that take place. What I will draw your attention to, however, is the scenery. Shot entirely in Taiwan, the landscapes are mesmeric and the craftsmanship of the sets almost make up for the disappointing narrative.

I’ll be honest, my personal religious views don’t mirror Scorsese’s; from the outset, I felt more sympathy for the Japanese. Foreign priests traversing the ocean to ‘spread the word of God’ in a country that has quite clearly stated that they want nothing to do with it? It’s hard not to sympathise. Perhaps that is a product of my own beliefs. While the Japanese Inquisitor’s methods of torture are decidedly medieval, they served as the only thing keeping me awake throughout the latter part of the film. Consequently, I soon searched for others’ opinions of Scorsese’s opus.

Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my indifference:

I get it Marty, you are a Catholic. But it’s not enough to rely on telling us this anymore. Your clumsy exposition in Silence is tedious. Your lack of brevity is beyond boring. Let us remember you in your prime. Not this bellicose, pious bore you’ve become. You might complain that young people no longer appreciate cinema, but in reality they are part of a living culture that has moved beyond you. Please. Stop.

– Nic Sadler, Filmmaker

And:

“And yet, judged in broadly cinematic terms, “Silence” is not a great movie, despite having been directed by one of the medium’s greatest masters at a point of great maturity … Though undeniably gorgeous, it is punishingly long, frequently boring, and woefully unengaging at some of its most critical moments. ”

– Peter Debruge, Variety

That being said, I would still recommend you see it for yourself before forming an opinion about it. It does feature an acclaimed cast, exhibits the finest costume design, set design and location shots that make up for the draining lack of action.

It is, after all, directed by one of cinema’s greats. He’s entitled to an indulgence every once in a while.

You have been warned.

Thanks for reading, 友人.

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