Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Martin Scorsese has always been about movies, first and foremost. All of his films would lose something immeasurable if they were to be expressed in any medium other than film. This is true even when he is adapting someone else’s work. Ryan Vlastelica’s article on Goodfellas for the Onion A.V. Club notes how, in adapting Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy into the film Goodfellas, Scorsese turned several minor passages into visually striking, even iconic scenes—the famous walk through the Copacabana being Vlastelica’s prime example. Scorsese seeks to do with a camera what the written or spoken word cannot do alone, grounding the viewer firmly in a world of vivid images and overpowering sensations. While the works of a genius like Francis Ford Coppola (director of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and innumerable others) can at times feel like filmed theatrical productions, Scorsese’s enduring power as a filmmaker lies in the fact that he takes full advantage of the medium, creating works that can be enjoyed on narrative, stylistic, and thematic levels.
With Silence, however—an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, concerning the perils faced by a pair of Jesuits in Japan in the seventeenth century—Scorsese seems to have dispensed of most frills, delivering an almost tortuously serious adaptation. That’s not to say that he doesn’t occasionally drop in a striking visual, such as the image of the face of Christ which haunts the soul of the missionary Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), or the shots of Japanese soldiers looming atop mist-shrouded hills which immediately bring to mind Kurosawa, but for the most part, Scorsese has all but removed himself from this film. Any other prestige director’s name might be appended to the film, and a viewer who didn’t know better wouldn’t be surprised.
In fact, this may be the film that Scorsese has been striving towards his whole career—indeed, he’s been trying to get it made since the late 1980s. All of his work, directly or indirectly, deals with the conflict between Catholic morality and an unjust world. How is a Christian to survive in a world that rewards the wicked and where piety is punishable by death? In telling the story of Silence, Scorsese has stumbled upon the perfect vehicle for exploring these themes. Rodrigues’s mission poses a danger not only to himself, but also to the Japanese Christians who follow him. While it may satisfy his soul to remain steadfast and refuse to renounce his faith, does that justify the suffering and death of the Japanese who follow him? Silence may not be the film most emblematic of Scorsese’s career, but it’s certainly one that means a lot to him. And he does a masterful job with the material: not a single shot or scene is out of place. He does a remarkable job conjuring the feeling of alienation the Portuguese feel within Japan, a nation which alternately seems to them a terrifying wilderness and a claustrophobic prison.
On that note, the acting deserves recognition. Actors from both sides of the Pacific are top-notch. Garfield and Girls’ Adam Driver work remarkably well together, even as they clash on matters of faith and obedience—Garfield is more willing to compromise, while Driver holds fast to doctrine even in the face of death. Issei Ogata is deliciously spiteful as Inoue-sama, whose business is the persecution of Christians. Yōsuke Kubozuka as the reluctant Christian Kichijiro makes sympathetic a character who breaks almost every promise he makes. Finally, Liam Neeson as the fallen priest Ferreira—whose disappearance first leads Garfield and Driver to seek passage to Japan—is revelatory, moving in a single scene from barely disguised self-loathing and righteous anger.
This hearty recommendation comes with some reservations. Firstly, Silence is long. Its runtime is over two hours, far more than the average moviegoer will be able to stomach. Secondly, it is brutal. From the very first scene, in which missionaries are tortured with boiling water, to the last—the intervening time includes a scene in which a Christian family is burned alive on top of a wooden pyre and an onscreen decapitation—Silence does not let up. But Scorsese does not allow the audience to become inured. Every death feels real; every moment of anguish and despair is like a blow to the heart. Put simply, Silence is not a merciful film.
If you can withstand that, however, Silence is a film well worth seeing—on the big screen, if possible. While some of Scorsese’s movies can be enjoyed with beer and pretzels, he’s finally made one to be enjoyed with wine and a communion wafer.
Featured image courtesy of www.empireonline.com.