Review: Silence (Scorsese, 2016)

“The price for your glory, is their suffering”

“Christian” is very rarely a modifier that makes the word to follow cool or something to be excited about.
Christian Rock. The Christian Right. Christian Schools. Christian Cinema.
None of these things instill anticipation or intrigue and low-key repulse your average 21st century 20something. They smack of enforced, coerced conformity and a distinctly bland or, at times, neutered version of the real deal, all cooked up between the white picket fences of 1950s Conservative America.
Oftentimes, these things are deaf to reason, stand dumb in the face of sense & evidence and blind to the progression of the modern world.

Christian cinema is littered with poorly made, agenda filled, dogmatic, PTA approved abominations, yet these preconceived personal biases of mine did nothing to dampen my excitement for Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating religious, specifically Christian, epic, “Silence”.
When Martin Scorsese’s name is attached to a film, people pay attention.
You are almost guaranteed one thing from Scorsese: a great addition to the canon of film. I say “almost” because “Silence” is not great, but it is at times very good. It has all the hallmarks of greatness; it’s pensive, it looks beautiful and it’s very long. But it is not enjoyable, it’s unrelentingly dour, far too long, consistently frustrating and fundamentally unrelatable.

It’s peerless film-making, but mediocre, repetitive and pointless storytelling.

“Silence” sees two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit Priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), risk their lives on a rain-drenched, dust-choked, sun-dried pilgrimage to feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who is reported to have publicly renounced his faith, or “apostatised”.

The film raises some great thematic and ethical questions like “Is martyrdom egotism?”, “Is selfish pride an integral facet of religious faith?” and “Does choosing avoidable suffering equate to heroism or stubbornness?”. It’s clearly a very personal document from Scorsese on conservative restraint and suffering, a stark contrast to his previous film, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, a biographical celebration of mega decadence and obscenity of both wealth and character. “Silence” and “Wolf…” prove Scorsese can do pretty much anything and do it better than most of his generation of American filmmakers, whether it’s comedy or misery, opulence or sparseness, vastness or confined spaces, when it comes to telling a story in a direct and unpretentiously visual manner, Scorsese is your man.

It’s the visuals that make the film even worth talking about; the real star of the show is Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. It seems clear to me that the film takes its visual cues from the work of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Ran and I’m also fairly sure that the opening shot of Silence is identical to the opening shot of Kurosawa’s 1957 Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood, they at least serve similar functions.

It’s a cliché, but I’ll say it: every frame is a painting, like a Goya or a Turner piece.  Almost any single second of the film could stand as an example for future generations of what film, as an artistic medium, can do.
Nature and the elements are presented expressively and as active forces in the world. The sea is endless, the jungle impenetrable, the sun is blistering, and the night brings with it a creeping haze from which the steely eyes of the closeted Japanese Christians emerge, their stony faces hardened by salt, smoke and a lifetime of brutal repression – masks behind which the warmest and most wretched of people have nothing but love and faith.

The soundtrack is also devastatingly effective, largely because there isn’t one.
The absence of a soundtrack in film that looks like sweeping strings and portentous percussion would bookend every scene only serves to sharpen the attention you pay to the film. Music will often guide you in the direction of how to feel, but if there is none, then you are forced to engage with the drama more intellectually.

The drama. This is where the film falls down. The drama of the piece largely relies on the oppressive Japanese Inquisition (led by the excellent scenery devouring Issey Ogata) demanding that the Japanese peasants and Jesuit priests denounce their Christian faith on pain of torture and death. There are many long, drawn out scenes of these Hidden Christians being forced to trample images of Jesus to varying degrees of resistance.
Over and over and over again, the inquisition insist, “renounce you faith and we’ll stop torturing you”. The choice is obvious to me, a 21st century Atheist.
This is a dramatic device I can’t get behind. People are killed in the most inhumane of ways, the suffering is relentless and death is always laboured. Somehow all of this brutality is preferable to just carrying the formalities of apostasy.
The last 90mins of the film is the inquisition trying to break down Andrew Garfield’s increasingly Jesus-y looking priest, getting him to just say the words and stamp his foot.

I was sat there internally screaming at A-Garf “JUST SAY THE FUCKING WORDS AND BE SECRETLY CHRISTIAN, IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD ANYWAY, SO YOU’RE CHOOSING TO SUFFER OUT OF STUBBORNESS AND PRIDE”. Which wouldn’t be so bad if SPOILER ALERT that isn’t exactly what happened at the end anyway. It’s incredibly frustrating to see that the conclusion/solution I arrived at a few minutes into the film was one that took the characters 3 HOURS to arrive at. The secondary thrust of the film is that Brother Rodrigues arrogantly and stubbornly believes that the Japanese should believe in his specific god, even though he is told numerous times by the Inquisitors, the Apostate Ferreira and his own boss back in Portugal that 1) you are not welcome in Japan and 2) they have their own faith, they won’t appreciate Christian imperialism, this isn’t worth the danger. Both of these points were blindingly obvious to me from the start and the film does nothing to change my stance on this because the characters do not change.
The story is all that should matter and if the characters are just doing the same thing over and over, you better be making a point with the repetition to make that character’s motive understandable. Instead, it’s tedious.

Ultimately, it’s and unrelenting, brutal, elemental tale of faith and what keeps people who believe in something (not necessarily God, but in anything) going in the face of the greatest adversity. In that respect, it reminded me of The Revenant, but far less entertaining because revenge is a far more interesting motivation than stubbornness and arrogance. It is as well made as Inarritu’s Oscar-winner and I hope it becomes a text for future film students to pore over and interpret for years to come.

Of the many things that Silence could be described as, “boring”, “far from enjoyable” and “Awe-inspiring” to be are just a few choice phrases

Mat S