Film Review: Silence

by Chad Liffmann on January 6, 2017

Scorsese has, at long last, delivered his faithful long-lasting delivery on faith

Bless me Andrew Garfield, for I have sinned.

I’m not opposed to a film with a 160+ minute running time. What I do mind is when that movie doesn’t utilize its extended running time properly. It’s hard to fault Martin Scorsese for ensuring that his new film, Silence, runs a simmering 160 minutes. After all, he had wanted to film this story for nearly thirty years. If you were to finally fulfill a 28 year journey to make a film, it’s likely you wouldn’t want to sacrifice one bit of your efforts onto the cutting room floor, either. There is an arguable purpose to Silence‘s slow pace and narrative repetition, which I’ll get to, but it’s ultimately not enough to warrant the length of the final cut. That being said, the film is more of a cinematic triumph than a failed attempt. Yes, it is a historical religious epic, fraught with troubling but effectively choreographed depictions of religious persecution, but Silence is also much more invested (to the point of fallible self-indulgence) in exploring our contentious personal connections to human nature, faith, and spirituality.

Silence is based on a 1966 novel by Shosaku Endo. The story is set in 17th century Japan, where  Portuguese Jesuit priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) have traveled to locate their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who was considered lost until a letter came informing the priesthood that he had abdicated the Christian faith. Within the rural Japanese villages, the priests encounter brutal persecution by the Japanese government over those secretly converting to the Christian faith, carried out under the leadership of Inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata). As you can see, the plot is relatively straightforward. It’s the underlying thematic material — faith and sacrifice, the understanding of cultural subjugation, and the balance of an introspective versus an extrospective focus when it comes to spirituality, that give Silence its complexity. Yet the complexity comes at a cost. Watching a film for 160 minutes is a test — an endurance test. Sure, it’s easy to suggest that the story required such a cinematic endurance test in order to convey its point, because, of course, having an undeterrable faith in a God or higher purpose isn’t a cakewalk. But there are redundancies, and slow points, that could’ve been trimmed out without losing much effect. I mean, 145 minutes ain’t short, either!

Now, consider your typical Terrence Malick film. That’s a joke; no Malick film is typical. What I’d like to convey is that when you watch a Terrence Malick film (Days of Heaven, The New World, The Tree of Life), you’re invited to view the natural world and the intricacies of human nature through nearly indescribable poetic beauty captured through a film lens. You can’t escape knowing that you’re looking through a lens because the human eye can’t realistically imitate the oxymoronic free flowing quick cut style in which Malick films are edited. In Silence, which I’d like to suggest is Scorsese’s closest imitation of a Malick film, Scorsese employs Malick’s common usage of soft-spoken intrinsic voiceovers to guide the audience’s understanding of a character’s thoughts (or rather, ruminations). However, unlike Malick, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, The Wolf of Wall Street) tend to treat the camera as an eye. It doesn’t cut from one direction to another, but rather, pans and pivots to the next shot. It’s a very interesting and effective way to capture the gorgeously lush Japanese forests and village locations. It’s also a useful tactic in making the audience experience the journey from the perspective of the characters.

Praise be unto thee, O Liam.

And speaking of the characters, what amazing performances, specifically from Garfield, Driver, and Ogata. As of this moment, Silence is the pinnacle of Garfield’s young acting career. His emotional and physical transformation throughout the theological experiences of his mission are remarkable, and award worthy. As for Driver, I just wish this movie, as well as this year’s frustratingly unsung indie, Patersoncame out before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was a rough and abrupt transition from his goofball character on Girls to the villainous Star Wars baddie, Kylo Ren. Driver has the acting chops to tackle complicated dramatic roles, and Silence proves it. Meanwhile, Ogata’s performance as the Inquisitor is one of the most uniquely powerful caricatures in a long while. He does, indeed, create a humorous, too-silly-to-believe Japanese leader, on the outside. Yet he gives the character extraordinary depth and power, to the point where we are made to believe that the Inquisitor may indeed have the most solid understanding of the world around him. At one point, exasperated with back-n-forth talk with Rodrigues, he crumples down silently into his own kimono for a good ten seconds. There is so much meaning in such a comical gesture.

Lately, Scorsese has been claiming that movies are dead, that “cinema is gone” and that “the theater will always be there for that communal experience… but what kind of experience is it going to be? Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia to the special experience of 2001 in 1968.” His point is that movies these days don’t have the memorable, artistic, and cinematic value that they used to. He somewhat has a point, though I don’t believe Silence is the best example of a modern classic like the epics he’s referring to. Only time will tell if I’m wrong, but, to me, Silence is a movie best experienced on a very large screen at home. There are too many distractions in the theater, and even with a perfectly silent audience (which is needed because it is a VERY quiet movie, with hardly any music), you still battle with the subconscious feeling that your opinions on faith and spirituality are in conflict with those sitting next to you. Better to have the freedom to interpret and experience the themes depicted in Silence from the solitude of your own living room. Fine, I’ll just say it, it’s best to watch Silence in silence. Shh!

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Silence comes out in theaters Friday, January 6th.

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