After the brilliant baroque overload that was ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, director Martin Scorsese has changed tack completely with ‘Silence’, a passion project three decades in the making that directly confronts his career-long obsession with themes of faith, guilt and redemption.
It’s not surprising that he was attracted to Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaka Endo’s 1966 book of the same title – after all, the director had planned to become a priest before pursuing his film career.
Set in the 17th century, the story centres on two Portuguese priests – Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) – who embark on a foolhardy mission to repressively anti-Christian Japan in order to find out what has happened to their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson).
Once there they encounter underground Christian communities desperately in need of their services, and are then captured by Japanese inquisitors who patiently and cunningly work to break down their faith.
There are plenty of nods to Scorsese’s cinematic heroes, from the philosophical introspection of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, to the passions of Pier Paolo Pasolini and the contemplative staging of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi.
These may give film buffs plenty to nudge each other about, but the film suffers from being too long, sometimes repetitive, and deeply earnest. Still, it presents not only a masterclass in filmmaking but also the closest that Scorsese has come to distilling his complicated relationship to faith and keeping it in spite of the often deafening silence of God.
While Garfield and Driver’s wobbly Portuguese accents are initially off-putting, they pull off emotionally sensitive and suitably internally torn performances. They’re made to look even better by an excellent group of supporting Japanese actors: Issey Ogata as the chief inquisitor tiptoes expertly between the comic and the menacing, and Yôsuke Kubozuka is pitifully compelling as the repeatedly wretched Judas character Kichijuro.
Slowly and assuredly Scorsese draws the audience into the journey of the priests and the eerily calm violence of the period – but also inside the tortured souls of those faced with making choices that will destroy the basis of their existence.
It’s not a hagiography of the heroism of early missionaries, which would ask us to forget the Catholic church’s own brutal history of the subjugation of heretics, but neither is it a complete condemnation of the Japanese.
With breathtaking cinematography by Mexican Rodrigo Prieto and a minimalist soundscape, Scorsese shows that he’s equally capable in the world of stillness and subdued observation as he is in the madcap visual dazzlings of his gangster films.
WATCH the trailer for Scorsese’s latest film, Silence