Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the kind of director you can pigeonhole. After all this is the man who went inside the mind of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, laid bare the mob in Goodfellas, and unleashed the financial sector’s debauchery in his most recent film The Wolf of Wall Street.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the legendary director has once again changed gears for his latest project Silence, a monumental undertaking that looks at the persecution of Christians in 17th Century Japan.
The film centres on two Jesuit priests from Portugal who arrive in Japan looking to find their missing mentor, a reportedly apostatized Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The junior priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver, reduced to skin, bones, and big, puzzled eyes), preach the word of Christianity in secret so as to avoid persecution from the strict and unforgiving Japanese government.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that eventually Rodrigues and Garrpe will run afoul of the island tyrants. A captured priest has more power than a hundred dead citizens because with one simple step a priest can crush an entire legion of faithful worshippers who want so badly to find absolution. The chief villain is known as the Inquisitor and he uses interrogation and debate to chip away at Rodrigues’ ideology. He then tortures innocent people in front of Rodrigues, hoping to break the stalwart servant of God even further.
Scorsese’s camera doesn’t flinch and it observes the film’s characters without judgment. It brings you into the heat of the fire and holds you to it, forcing you to tussle with its quandaries and themes. It isn’t for the faint of heart, but it isn’t garishly violent either. Its physical brutality comes almost calmly and its mental wrestling match spares no mercy. The screenplay by Scorsese and Jay Cocks is one of the year’s very best.
Heavy themes rule the day in Silence, which doesn’t claim to make any bold assertions on the existence of God but instead posits a heady question about the possibility of God’s existence. Does God enjoy our suffering? Or does he suffer along with us? Or is our pain all for nothing – futile gestures of devotion to something that simply is not there?
Silence might be Martin Scorsese’s grandest statement on humanity to date. It also might be one of the greatest films on the subject of religion ever. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be for everyone; if 161 minutes of slow contemplation sounds like it could put you to sleep then it likely will.
Those willing and able to take the leap of faith and put their trust in Mr. Scorsese will hopefully find themselves handily rewarded, though the film’s ultimate impact might come down to each audience member’s relationship with their own faith.
The agnostic and the devout alike can find plenty to dissect and discuss in Silence. Like all great art, the film doesn’t answer questions – it raises them. The film’s very final image attempts to put a punctuation point on Rodrigues’ internal struggle but one could argue his character’s truth would be better served if left ambiguous.
Less certain is Scorsese’s own stance on the question at hand. The master director remains as enigmatic and elusive as ever, at once laying everything out on the table yet simultaneously playing his cards close to the vest. The man’s previous film was The Wolf of Wall Street. Who knows where he’ll go next?
Despite all the awards hoopla surrounding La La Land (a perfectly fine picture but a thematic lightweight) and its two closest competitors, the true holy triumvirate this year consists of Moonlight, Manchester By the Sea, and now Silence. Each examines the human experience from a different angle and together they help inform a fuller picture of this mystery we call “life”.
Morality, identity, and strings pulled by a higher power: Silence uses its distinct setting and vision to share insight on subjects that plague the human race as much in 2017 as they did in 1639. Through some select passages of dialogue, too, Silence manages to sneak in some commentary on European imperialism. These moments help shape the political landscape of the film but do little to affect the core questions at play.
Not every movie can satisfy every audience, this much should be obvious by now, but Scorsese remains as indelible a cinematic voice as ever. Those hoping for more The Departed and less Kundun will almost assuredly find Silence unsatisfying however. Its lack of marketable stars and marathon running time also limits its general audience appeal. But that’s their loss. Silence is a film for the ages, a singular motion picture to revisit multiple times over many years to come.
I don’t offer up the term “masterpiece” lightly, and any film’s true staying power can only be revealed with the passage of time. But if time determines Silence doesn’t quite earn that M-word label then it definitely comes very close. As it stands today, right here and now, it’s an astonishing cinematic achievement that deserves to be consumed in a large, dark theatre and discussed heavily afterwards.
Five out of five!
“Silence” is rated R and now playing at select theatres. Running time 161 minutes.