Review: Silence

A ponderous and problematic piece of piety, Scorsese fails to grasp the human cost at the heart of blind adoration. A diminished return to familiar material.

It is a wonder indeed that even Martin Scorsese can struggle to get a film up, but that was the case with the arduous journey of Silence to our screens, beset with rights issues surrounding Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel of the same name.

Following on the heels of Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation, Scorsese adapted the screenplay with co-writer Jay Cocks. While faith and temptation has been a tenet of many of his works, this is the most overt since his grappling with Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that burned far brighter than this, sadly.

Former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield and Girls/Star Wars star Adam Driver seem perhaps unusual choices to play Portuguese Jesuit priests who plead to be sent to a 17th century Japan set on eradicating Christians, ostensibly to save the immortal soul of their predecessor, Liam Neeson’s Father Ferreira, accused as an apostate, a man who has walked away from his faith. In fact, they are both very good, Driver more so, approaching their faith in subtly different ways, but the presence of the latter is missed when his Father Garupe is separated from Garfield’s Father Rodrigues, with whom we remain for the remainder of the movie.

It’s at this point that the quieting of alternate voices becomes unbearably pronounced. Sailing uncomfortably close to white saviour territory, while this is perhaps Scorsese’s intent, allowing criticism of colonialism and a questioning of blind devotion, even at the agonising sacrifice of countless lives unwilling to stand on a religious icon, it’s severely problematic because of the far-too slight role for the Japanese characters.

None are allowed much time or space to reveal their view on this stark world of unrelenting religious persecution. Not Yosuke Kubozuka’s excellently ambiguous, drunken guide, balancing comedy and heartache in scene-stealing moments that are criminally few and far between, nor Issei Ogata’s brutal governor or the urbane Tadanobu Asano as his sneering translator.

Burdened with far too great a reverence, Scorsese seems unable to find the human tragedy at the heart of this questioning of devotion and its all-too high cost, barring a startling sea-set crucifixion scene, the film’s most aesthetically pleasing and yet simultaneously horrifying in two hours and 40 minutes lavishly shot by Rodrigo Prieto.

Oddly detached and languorous, given the nature of the sacrifices on show and the hypocrisy of those who view that brutality while cowering in the bushes, Scorsese also horribly bookends the film with quite awful expository narration, including the ridiculously late insertion of an unnecessary additional character and one staggering overreach that surely runs against everything he’s trying to suggest here, in the need for faith to answer to despair.

Ultimately the clumsiness of his adoration of the source material is inescapable, leaving me agnostic on the rather onerous Silence and its saccharine final image.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★1/2