I love movies. I love writing about them. Hope you like reading what I write.
Just like last year, my most anticipated movie of the year (which last year was The Revenant) is a period art-piece about foreigners in a strange land which also happened to be the first review of the year. Is this one up to snuff?
Silence is the latest from cinephile darling Martin Scorsese. Having been in the works for over 20 years, this one is based on the Shusaku Endo novel of the same name and tells the partially historically accurate tale of two 17th Century Portuguese Jesuit Priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who go to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson) who has reportedly denounced God in public.
This film took so long, not because of development hell like so many movies that do, but because Scorsese and his co-writer Jay Cocks were, in Kubrick-like fashion, never satisfied with how to depict the central conflict of the film, one I rarely if ever, see in a film; What does it mean to follow your religion?
Garfield, in a brilliant performance, plays the priest Rodrigues who acts as our eyes as he explores the vastly strange and dangerous medieval Japan. Dangerous for him as Christianity at that time was interpreted as a weapon of the usurpers from Europe and the Japanese squashed it with a sweeping and terrifying oppression.
I have not seen a film so spiritually complex to have come out in this century. Certainly, there have been great morally or cinematically complex films in recent years, but Silence has true guts, delivering us such a straight-up deconstruction of martyrdom, oppression, faith and love.
One thing important to remember about religion is that there are differences between religions and each religion as differences with itself, this film being brave enough to show both the ways in which a belief can be accepted across the world, yet still have these differences.
Religion can be seen as man’s vain attempt to find the beauty of the universe in man and sometimes the humanity of the universe in turn.
Rodrigues is torn throughout the film between the calling in his heart to Christ, his pride and the suffering in Japan around him watched by his silent Deity. This film knows that in order to talk about big things, we still have to see little people going through it. Some scenes in this film made me sympathise more with people of hidden faith than any other artwork has ever done.
I said “silent” very deliberately there. Not only is it almost the title of the film, but it is true of the film’s execution. No non-diagetic music is heard in the entire runtime (not even Gimme Shelter, a staple of Marty’s features), only the rustling of trees.
Scorsese’s style is quiet here too. Less showy post-modernism than in most of his films, no neo-realistic improvised dialogue scenes. We observe reverently as he gives us “soft” direction. He wants us to stop and listen to something important.
Before continuing, I must tell you my two ever-so-slight gripes with the movie. I’m not even sure whether I actually have these gripes, this is one of those movies where I don’t want to judge things too quickly, but some may find the runtime a little long at 3 hours and I’m not one-hundred percent sold on the ending’s lack of ambiguity. It’s not like there’s none in it, but I feel like it would be better to have a couple more questions and a couple less answers.
I am a huge Scorsese fan. Despite that I have not seen The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun, his other two films whose surface subject matter is religion. However, I have seen enough of his work to know that he is a nearly untouchable master of his craft and a man who uses his movies to ask questions, like a great artist should.
You may know that Scorsese is a failed priest himself. Having dropped out of the seminary, he joined film school and has success ranging from good to great in movies ever since. The Auteur Theory has its holes in it (why should only one man get credit for all the work of thousands of people), but there’s not denying the man has a voice. A voice that adapts to every movie he makes, like Kierkegaard to his books.
How right then that he takes the voice of Ingmar Bergmann, that genius theologian and filmmaker to scream in a whisper his questions of God.
This review is pretty pretentious, I’ll admit, but it’s good to remember what “pretentious” actually means. It means striving toward some great meaning in a work of art and falling short, like Batman v Superman.
This film cashes the cheque. It goes just far enough, keeping enough human drama, suspense and respect to be that poem of humanity that it needed to be.
Is this Scorsese’s masterwork? I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter anyway. If you can’t tell already, it’s really, really good.
Recommended Scenario: If you want a companion piece to The Seventh Seal and The Mission that can genuinely hold a candle to both.