The great Martin Scorsese spent decades struggling to make ‘Silence’. Many casts signed on and then departed once the cash flow dried up. It took the combined forces of putting Spider-Man and Han Solo, Jr. in the lead roles before anyone agreed to bankroll this thing and even then, it almost has to be assumed that it will be a financial loss for all involved. Somehow that quest from arguably the greatest filmmaker of his generation feels appropriate.
So does the fact that he was only able to make it after his oft-misunderstood masterpiece ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. This film was a mountain that Scorsese had to climb and an act of penance for one of the most debaucherous films of his career (even if it was for the sake of satire). This is Scorsese at his most tortured, thoughtful and overtly religious. It’s not an easy film and will be difficult to discuss in terms like “love” or “hate.” ‘Silence’ is a film to be experienced in stoic reverence, perhaps even suffered through slightly. That’s the point. Belief and faith aren’t easy, even if your belief and faith are dedicated to sitting through one of Martin Scorsese’s most pained cinematic fever dreams.
The film starts with one hell of a beauty shot, impeccably framed and timed to fog. It’s quiet and contemplative, slowly teasing viewers toward images of horror that they’re powerless to do anything but observe. It sets the tone for the film as a whole. While Scorsese has built a reputation on movies that fly with the speed of his motormouth speech patterns and a collection of swooping beauty shots edited to the pulsing beat of his ever-growing record collection, ‘Silence’ holds viewers at arm’s length and demands that they work out what to make of the images themselves.
The filmmaker has given himself over to the rhythms of a unique story that builds in quiet intensity and peaks with moments of violence almost unbearable to behold. Even though his work here is not without precedent (such as the de-romanticized approach to ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ or the colorful contemplation of ‘Kundun’, with which ‘Silence’ forms an unofficial trilogy about faith), it feels like a deliberate departure from a decade of his version of Hollywood entertainment.
Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver star as a pair of pained Jesuit priests at the center of this Christian odyssey. They’ve learned that their mentor (Liam Neeson) renounced Christ after being forced to watch his followers in Japan be subjected to torture and murder until he gave up his faith. Refusing to believe such a thing could even occur, they head out to the swampland jungles of 17th Century Japan in search of their own Col. Kurtz. They pass in secret between villages, where impoverished farmers cherish the opportunity to practice outlawed Christianity. It’s a slow and arduous journey in the shadows until Rodrigues (Garfield) is captured and forced to endure the very fate that caused Ferreira (Neeson) to renounce his oath to God. It’s painful, torturous stuff rooted in religious anguish, made even worse by Issei Ogata’s masterfully mischievous portrayal as the lead inquisitor testing the protagonist’s faith in every way possible.
A fun night at the movies ‘Silence’ ain’t. The film is designed to challenge and confront audiences in the same brand of endurance test that its heroes endure. Scorsese is overt in his themes and questions. The script by the director and Jay Cocks (who also collaborated on the screenplays for ‘Last Temptation’ and ‘The Age of Innocence’) lays its central concepts bare and serves up pregnant images that force audiences to consider how far one needs to go in the name of faith. (The Rodrigues character frequently questions how Jesus would respond, just to make this extra clear.) It’s not a particularly subtle film in focus, but can be in practice. Performances are strong, but generally muted as characters are either too exhausted, pained, or powerless to act out. Even Ogata’s smirking villain makes his horrific motives clear and horrifyingly logical. He’s oddly calm for someone who acts so inhumanely. This all builds toward an ending tough to read, as it could be either hopeful or pitiful depending on the point of view of the interpreter.
On a certain level, ‘Silence’ plays like a career capping thesis for the themes of religious faith and agonizing self-torture-as-penance that Scorsese has explored from his very first film. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the movie took so long to get made, given that it sums up certain fascinations of the filmmaker so succinctly while still forcing viewers to do the hard work of sorting out how to think and feel about the whole solemn ordeal. Some may find that to be pretentious navel gazing from a director who previously played this sort of thing out buried within genre, or at least with more of a sense of conventional entertainment. However, if any director has deserved this type of self-indulgent wank, it’s Scorsese.
In the grand scheme of movies made by directors who needed to work out some personal conundrums on screen while torturing their viewers in the process, ‘Silence’ is an immensely satisfying experience. Will the movie frustrate you in the moment and upset you for days afterwards? Sure, but not without reward. For a twilight filmmaker taking one last stab at answering big questions through his medium of choice, it’s a damn impressive achievement. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ will likely remain Martin Scorsese’s final masterpiece, but ‘Silence’ is one hell of a tortured curtain call.