By Ben Thumm (Chicago, IL, USA)
30 years. Over 30 years in the making Martin Scorsese has been lobbying and pleading to bring his passion project to life. Scorsese has been a dedicated man to religion and filmmaking, both of which he has intertwined in films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Even his directing style has a religious influence, whether that is certain framework and shots, or imagery and symbolism. He finally got his opportunity to bring every element and style to the screen for Silence and he does not disappoint.
Shusaku Endo penned the novel in 1966 and the book is described as “one of the twentieth century’s finest novels.” That in itself is already a monumental feat to adapt to audiences. Silence is a historical fiction tale of two Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) that search for their mentor in Japan where Christianity is banned. The first scene takes us to Nagasaki, Japan where Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is narrating his trials and tribulations of what he has endured. The screen is filled with smoke and once it clears the audience is front and center of the persecution and acts of torture inflicted upon other Jesuit priests as Ferreira can only be a spectator. Ferreira then commits apostasy and renounces God in public. Quickly, I just want to point out how Neeson’s facial expressions in particular just gave me this distinct and reassuring feeling that everyone involved was going to give their all in this project. I knew I was embarking on an emotional and mentally taxing journey with this film and I was able to fully invest in it right from the start.
Cut to Portugal where Rodrigues and Garrpe have returned from a mission to find out from Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) that Father Ferreira has written a letter describing his act of apostasy in public. Rodrigues and Garrpe consider this information slander and that their mentor would never commit such an act. They beg Valignano to make the trek to Japan in order to find their mentor and seek out the truth. With the aid of a Japanese man named Kichijiro, (Yosuke Kubozuka) who is looking to go back home and make amends for his own act of apostasy.
The three set sail to the dangerous grounds of Japan and are welcomed by a village of natives that are devoted Christians in secret. They immediately gravitate to Rodrigues and Garrpe considering everything they have gone through to hide their beliefs just to be able to stay alive. Both priests have to stay in hiding during the days since it is unsafe. In the middle of the night is when they are able to perform masses, confessions and baptisms. The shack that they stay in during daytime allows them to converse on what they mean to these people as well as their mission and why they are there in the first place. They realize that they need to further their journey and venture deeper into more hostile lands.
With a runtime of 141 minutes and the film being a spiritual drama so heavy on the dialogue of its’ main characters, there needs to be a strong and cohesive screenplay in order to capture all of the spiritual and religious ideas presented. Scorsese himself along with Jay Cocks took on the challenge to make Endo’s novel a reality. Cocks had also previously collaborated with Scorsese back on Gangs of New York where he was credited as a main writer. I am sure that the both of them wanted to do their absolute best in translating the book’s values, themes and spiritual context into their script and characters. The dialogue throughout the entirety of the movie calls upon the character’s evaluation of what they truly believe in and if they are fighting for the right purpose in the first place.
Being in such a hostile and dangerous environment doesn’t mean that the surroundings can’t be beautiful. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto could not have done a better job of his photography of the scenery and landscapes. And what seems to go hand in hand with the cinematography is the score, or lack thereof. The Academy has already disqualified the score for Silence since it isn’t considered “a substantial body of work.” There really is no music whatsoever throughout. There is essentially silence besides the insistent chirping of crickets or the sounds of nature in general like the wind in trees or waves of the ocean rolling over one another. With this particular approach it allows those subtle elements to seemingly raise the urgency of each line of dialogue spoken.
Once the journey has concluded the viewer is left to reflect on everything that has been put on display. Various acts of torture are plentiful and difficult to watch. Faith and belief are deeply examined. Scorsese wanted this film to have such a deeper meaning than what’s evident at the surface of this story and characters. He was able to accomplish that in less time than what he probably really wanted. The original cut was around four hours and in my opinion, I think that that running time would have even done a better justice to the story and film. The final act seemed to be really where he and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker decided to trim some of the so called ‘fat.’ The ending doesn’t necessarily feel too rushed but definitely does not fit the pace of the first 3/4 of the movie.
So far, Silence has not received much or any recognition by any awards shows so far or even at the box office. It’s definitely understandable that this kind of film isn’t going to appeal to mass audiences unless it picks up some Academy Award nominations and I hope they do. Garfield completely transforms himself into Rodrigues and deserves much more praise for his performance. This goes without saying but Scorsese’s directing is as great as it has ever been.
Films like this don’t get made very often, if ever. So when they do, it is something worth seeing and experiencing.
Rodrigues: Our Lord said to them, “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every living creature.”
Father Valignano: Ferreira is lost to us. He denounced God in public and surrendered the faith.
Garrpe: That’s not possible. Father Ferreira risked his life to spread our faith all over Japan.
Rodrigues: It seems to me that our mission here is more urgent than ever, we must go find Father Ferreira.