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SILENCE (2016) review

January 8, 2017

silence

 

written by: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese
produced by: Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, Vittorio Cecchi Gori
Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gaston Pavlovich, Martin Scorsese & Irwin Winkler
directed by: Martin Scorsese
rated: R
runtime: 159 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2016 (NY/LA) and January 6, 2016 (limited)

 

It feels as though there have been rumors and rumblings about Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” for years. That’s ironic, considering the film’s title, but it’s not surprising if you’re aware of the source material and familiar with the director’s oeuvre. Scorsese has been developing a cinematic adaptation of  Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 award-winning novel of the same name for almost thirty years. Having seen this ambitious, almost three-hour period epic, with its breathtaking cinematography and challenging ideas regarding faith, it’s fascinating to imagine how this passion project for the devoutly Catholic filmmaker was shrouded in mystery for so long. I can’t help but think of the differences between the initial images we often attach to anticipated projects from a director and what we finally see in a theater. “Silence” brings to mind the idea of journey and all it entails, how Scorsese and the two lead characters in his film looked at their journey on the onset and how their view inevitably changes during the tumultuous journey, something that can also be said for viewers as well.

I have thought about the images from “Silence” for quite some time after viewing, as well as the sounds of the film – the rustling of leaves, pounding of waves and crackling of fire – which play a valuable role in the overall tone of the film. The overall premise may be simple enough, but the experience for the viewers and of the characters they watch  complex and provocative, regardless of where you stand with faith and belief. “Silence” tells an immersive and transportive story, much like Scorsese’s previous religious films, like 1987’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and 1997’s “Kundun”. While it’s a darker film, that delve, into complicated question, both personal and rhetorical, it is nevertheless just as accomplished as those films.

 

 

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“Silence” opens in Portugal, but is mostly set in Japan during the seventeenth century, where two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), have traveled to in response to an emotional letter written ten years ago from a fellow missionary, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The letter indicated that Ferreira has committed apostasy and has taken a wife and child and is content living among the Japanese community under rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.  Motivated by their disbelief, the two priests set out on a seek and find mission, to learn what happened to their beloved mentor. Upon arrival they discover a secret group of underground Japanese Christians, who become elated to be in the presence of the men of the cloth for the first time in their lives, exciting that they can express their love of God in a land that persecutes and tortures believers of Christ.

The presence of the priests draw the attention of the nearby shoguns in charge and soon Rodrigues is captured and brought before Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata, “Yi Yi”), the local Inquisitor for questioning. Rodrigues is told that unless he renounces his faith by stepping on a bronze image of Jesus, other those villagers who believe will be tortured or killed. Struggling with his own faith and convictions, Rodrigues witnesses multiple horrors and atrocities during his extended captivity and his love and devotion to God is put to the test even further once he finally finds Ferreira.

“Silence” is a compelling look at how religious convictions and faith are tested in conditions very few viewers have experienced, but more than anything it is about the arduous journey of maintaining faith. At first, Rodrigues is unable to comprehend his mentor’s alleged unfaithfulness and his decision to find Ferreira is centered on the need to prove his lasting conviction, but it isn’t until he’s subjected to the horrors of persecution (his own and the villagers known as Kakure Kirishitan, a Japanese term for “hidden Christians”) that he’s actually able to experience what Ferreira lived through. There’s no way the young priests could be prepared for being burned alive or forced to drown, as a result of refusing to step on the “fumie,” the bronze plates of Jesus which are used repeatedly throughout the film. Both the Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, “Thor“) assigned to Rodrigues and the Inquisitor incorporate manipulative mental and emotional torment along with physical torture in their efforts to get the priests to renounce his faith, which is considered an outside threat to Japan. You can read about crucifixions and persecution in the Bible, but actually seeing it in person is something else entirely and this is something neither of these two priests can be prepared for.

 

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Although the screenplay is an adaptation of Endō’s novel, the basic premise here is somewhat familiar and partly based on real life individuals, or at least an amalgam of them. There is a resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (which was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”) as well as Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” from 1986, which also follows Jesuit priests and stars Neeson. Both Conrad’s story and Scorsese’s co-adaptation of with former film critic, Jay Cocks (his collaborator on “The Age of Innocence” and “Gangs of New York”), starts out with a protagonist (or, in this case, protagonists) embarking on a seek and find mission with definitive intentions, yet what they experience, witness and endure, is completely unexpected. Like Willard seeking out Col. Kurtz in Conrad’s story, the characters of Rodrigues and Garpe have no idea what lies ahead and neither do we as viewers. Their focus is on the man they seek and whether or not he’s even alive and, if so, what condition he’s in, mentally, physically and certainly spiritually.

Neeson’s Ferreira is based on a Portuguese Catholic priest and Jesuit missionary of the same name, one who apostatized after hours of being tortured during Japan’s purge of Christianity. No doubt he is a compelling character and while we may spend most of the film with Rodrigues and Garrpe (moreso Rodrigues), Scorsese and Cocks bookend “Silence” with Ferreira, providing a glimpse of what he endured and an understanding of the life the fallen priest had chosen in the ten year he had gone silent. It’s a powerful performance from Neeson of a character who goes from broken to a man who has forsaken what he once lived for.

As the two young priests, Garfield and Driver have an interesting chemistry together, yet once they are apart the story unfortunately stays with Rodrigues. Driver’s Garrpe was definitely the more intriguing of the two, perhaps a bit more cautious and hesitant to journey deeper and deeper into territory they are not wanted. His stance is much more relatable than Garfield’s Rodrigues, who insists on pressing on. There never seems to be a clear plan as to what they will do when they find Ferreira. For both characters, it is a mission of passion (just as this film is a “passion project” for Scorsese) with a lack of wisdom and knowledge. It’s ironic that Garfield played another “based on a true story” man of faith pushing through extreme circumstances against the Japanese in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” released a couple months before “Silence”. This film offers the actor a much more complex character, one who wrestles outwardly and internally with loss and doubt as he struggles with his faith.

That crisis of faith amid barbaric violence is what makes “Silence” a grueling test of endurance, but it’s a preferable look at the struggles of faith than most modern-day movies that revolve around Christianity. Doubts and questions arise in Rodrigues’ conflicted mind, some of them are planted by interactions with the Inquisitor and others come from challenging conversations he eventually has with Ferreira. Knowing the repercussions of his influence on the faithful villagers, it’s no wonder how Rodrigues begins to ponder if it’s  all worth it. At what price is the glory of martyrdom? Why is God seemingly silent to the cries of the tortured and dying? What kind of God allows others to die while Rodrigues clings to his faith?  Does God want his faithful followers to die for him and, if so, what benefit will these deaths have? Shouldn’t a faithful disciple endure the same physical torture Jesus did?

One answer to that last question could be simply: No. Since a man is just a man, whereas Jesus Christ was God in the flesh (that is, if you believe along those lines). The crucifixion of Christ was prophesied, Jesus knew his death was inevitable in order for mankind to have a relationship with God and although he still struggled with it, he went through with it, knowing what’s at stake. It’s one thing to strive to be Christ-like, but following in his footsteps to the point of dying for your faith, is another thing entirely. Granted, it’s something that still happens to this day in certain parts of the world.

But, “Silence” asks, does God want such a thing? Persecution is indeed Biblical, but what about allowing other believers to do die before your eyes because you will not renounce God? Couldn’t God forgive you if you do such an act, knowing your heart’s intent is to save others from certain death? Obviously, questions follow questions, for both the characters in the film and those viewing it (during and long after), regardless of your stance on religion or what you believe.

 

silenceshogun

 

“Silence” studies the toll such a journey takes by getting under Rodrigues’ skin, following a servant of God who is passionate and willing to take on this messiah role, to a tormented soul barely holding on to his convictions. Scorsese follows the character closely,  providing an internal monologue, where we observe Rodrigues fighting to maintain a sharp and observant mind frame as hardship builds around him. The second half of this three-act story is drawn out – but we never check out – instead, we draw close, remaining alongside Rodrigues on this long road of conflict, where his eventual capture feels like receiving a badge of honor.

It’s not surprising that “Silence” is visually appealing nor was it a shock to find myself lost its compelling storytelling, but one aspect of the film I was taken aback by is how rich the Japanese characters were, portrayed by actors who provided some of the best performances in the film.  Early on, there’s an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who guides the two priests to the village inhabited by the Kakure Kirishitan, someone who first appears to serve as comic relief, but he gradually becomes one of the most unpredictable and relatable characters in the film. Another memorable character Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto “Shin Godzilla”), a Japanese believer among the villagers, who becomes a source of inspiration for Rodrigues and Garrpe. Tsukamoto plays the role with a quiet strength and humility that pays off in one of the most emotionally wrenching moments of the film. The role that subverts expectations completely is Ogata’s Inoue the Inquisitor, a character that could’ve easily been a one-dimensional antagonist, but the more screen time he gets, the more layers are peeled away, revealing the polar opposite of Rodrigues, someone who can engage in a philosophical and theological discussion with wisdom and knowledge. Inoue confidently and convincingly defends and clarifies his position, allowing viewers to acknowledge that both sides have valid and passionate viewpoints. It is indeed refreshing to see these multi-dimensional characters and talented actors enrich and elevate “Silence”, adding to an already rewarding viewing experience.

“Silence” ends with a thought-provoking gesture that is ripe for discussion, which is only fitting for a movie already loaded with material suitable for lengthy debates and arguments. At times, the religious symbolism may be a bit heavy-handed for some, but when it appears, it has its place. “Silence” is a more patient, sophisticated and observational work than we may be used to from Scorsese, as well as an impressive and fitting addition to his filmography.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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