FILM REVIEW – SILENCE (2016)
No other filmmaker conjures images of gangsters and criminal excess as vividly as Martin Scorsese. But away from the outrageous mobsters and their gunslinging antics, the veteran director has also dabbled in examinations of spirituality and faith, notably The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun.
Now Scorsese adds another religion-themed epic to his oeuvre – and one that’s sure to challenge even his most devout fans. Set in the 17th century, Silence is a 161-minute meditation on belief, piety and persecution. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, who are spurred to travel to Japan when they hear that a respected mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has gone missing and may have denounced Catholicism.
Youthful courage takes the pair across the world but their mission proves to be disastrous as soon as they arrive on the shores of Japan. The country is in the throes of a Christianity ‘cleanse’ resulting in much bloodshed, paranoia and cruelty. The Japanese officials are portrayed as being particularly ruthless and conniving in their efforts to remove any vestiges of European missionary influence.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are constantly tested, both mentally and physically, and the focus shifts to their inner turmoil as they question whether to apostatise in order to stay alive, or to remain loyal to a God who is apparently silent (hence the film’s title) in the face of this human suffering.
Silence is the outcome of a long-term passion project for Scorsese who has wanted to adapt Shusaku Endo’s novel for decades. Sadly the period drama is frustratingly ponderous and uneven. The characters’ dilemma over their faith is meant to feel crushing and urgent, instead the emotional heat is dulled and Scorsese’s unusually subdued style will probably leave audiences cold and unengaged.
The movie has fine performances all round from its international cast, especially the supporting Japanese actors. Also it’s obvious Scorsese and his team took extra care to make each frame hauntingly beautiful with the historic costumes and gorgeous scenery (location shooting took place in Taiwan). But those plus points are largely overshadowed by the long stretches of repetition and boredom – and that’s a shame since a provocative look at religious belief, preachers and conflict would be very welcome in contemporary cinema.
Silence opens in the UK on 1st January. Martin Scorsese’s films will be on the big screen as part of BFI’s Scorsese season and Scorsese-curated screenings of restored classics at BFI Southbank.