To call Martin Scorsese’s Silence a passion project might very well be an example of proficient pun play, but it would also be a severe disservice to this film and its position in a legendary director’s oeuvre. To be fair, Silence is not Scorsese’s most entertaining or exciting film. However, it will almost certainly go down as one of his most significant. The filmmaker’s fixation on religion is well-documented, and the influence of his Catholicism on the work he’s produced is undeniable, so it should come as no surprise that Scorsese has tirelessly shepherded this project through development hell for more than twenty years. Silence is far closer to Kundun than Goodfellas, but in some ways it might prove to be a definitive Scorsese film.
Adapted from a 1966 novel of the same name by author Shusaku Endo — a Japanese convert to Roman Catholicism — the narrative focuses on the quest undertaken by two 17th century Portuguese Jesuits (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a priest rumored to have apostatized under torture at the hands of inquisitors in Nagasaki. As the priests minister to persecuted Japanese crypto-Christians and witness the horrors they endure for their faith, Scorsese’s maturity as a filmmaker contributes a genuine sense of grace to the film. Rather than indulging in the shock tactics lesser religious filmmakers such as Mel Gibson would have employed, the brutality of the suppression is rendered with a matter-of-fact intensity that avoids easy sensationalism.
“Religious” Scorsese could very nearly constitute a subgenre within the director’s work, and one to which popular reception has not traditionally been warm. But the hallmarks of his auteurial signature are evident, from his use of the sweeping God’s Eye View perspective found in many of his films to spiritual ambiguity that distinguished his films as far back as Mean Streets. Influences from Dreyer and Bergman to Kurosawa and Mizoguchi are evident throughout, but the film displays a stylistic austerity that places the story at the forefront.
Silence is a slow-burn, and the deliberate pacing of its nearly three-hour running time will make it a hard sell to mass-market moviegoers. But the narrative is compelling throughout, and the last hour is easily among Scorsese’s most virtuosic work. The cast delivers uniformly strong performances, with Neeson, Garfield and Driver all ably rising to the demands of the material. Issey Ogata is a true standout as chief inquisitor Inoue Masashige, conveying a nuanced menace that more than warrants to awards buzz he’s garnered. But the real draw here is Scorsese, and he’s in top form.
The most commendable aspect of Silence is Scorsese’s willingness to engage with thorny theological questions while abstaining from any sense of sermonizing. There are no easy answers in questions of faith and persecution, and the filmmaker’s courage in addressing these issues head-on without digressing into proselytization speaks volumes, not only to his acumen as an auteur, but also his character as a Christian. Those with preexisting religious affiliations will find a great deal of value in Silence, but it may be even more worthwhile to those with no dogmatic convictions whatsoever. The masterstroke of Silence is not only the film itself, but the conversations that it’s likely to start after the end credits roll. Rated R for some disturbing violent content. English with limited Japanese and Latin dialogue.
Now Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande.