Silence: Scorsese’s Cinematic Hair-Shirt

Directing maestro Martin Scorsese’s latest offering is heavy on capital-T themes and production values but strangely lightweight for its stellar cast and crew. This second film adaptation of Silence took 26 years to get from conception to screen, and seems to have lost much of its vitality along the way.

Silence is based on Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed 1996 novel about Jesuit Catholic missionaries enduring persecution in a 17th century Japan officially inimical to their faith. The ‘silence’ of the title is the silence of a God who does not respond to the pleadings of two young priests, Sebastião (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco (Adam Driver) attempting to maintain the nascent Japanese church. Their journey to the country is motivated by a shared desire to discover the fate of an earlier missionary, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who is presumed to have publically recanted Christianity to save his own life.

Japanese ‘Kirishitans’ of the time were forced by a hostile government to worship in secret. There were no official places of Christian worship and adherents lived with the constant threat of torture and execution. Sebastião and Francisco arrive under cover of darkness and witness both the fervent devotion of Japan’s Kirishitans and the brutal punishment visited on them by the state. By the time the shadowy Ferreira appears both missionaries have had their physical strength and beliefs tested in a run of betrayals, pogroms, and dark nights of the soul.

The bulk of Scorsese’s Silence plays out in either small rooms or in the borderless and hostile Japanese wilderness (Taiwanese wilderness actually, for budgetary reasons). Initial smuggler of the missionaries Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) and his fellow villagers are perpetually dirt-stained and at the mercy of pelting rainstorms. The harsh environment, the dingy huts of the faithful, and their improvised Christian paraphernalia all give the impression of devotion under extreme duress.

Japenese governor Inoue (Issey Ogata) and his silver-tongued interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) are the terror of the Kirishitans. Their counter-Christian crusade and philosophical clash with the missionaries forms the philosophical centre of the story. Sebastião and Francisco are forced to examine the basis of their Catholicism and weigh it against the suffering it causes the Japanese followers who are brutalised in their stead.

The script gives plenty of room for the acting leads to move, though only Driver and Asano truly thrive. Ogata’s governor is rarely menacing despite the power he wields, and Garfield finds no subtlety in a potentially nuanced role. Sebastião is horrified to see innocents in agony and maddened by the grief he endures himself, but all with predictable and blunt presentation. Driver on the other hand is by turns severe and vulnerable in his comparatively little screen time. As the clearly stronger performer it’s a shame that his and Garfield’s roles weren’t switched to give Driver more prominence.

Silence is compositionally beautiful. Taiwan offers landscapes apt for picturesque wides and lush backgrounds, but the real wealth of the film is in the visually intimate. The gestures and mutterings of Garfield, Driver, and their flock seem the most lovingly presented elements of the film. Many interior scenes are bookended by shots resembling devotional paintings (say like some less dramatic Caravaggio works) in palette and framing. Earthy tones and natural lighting dominate the most striking portions of the film. The quiet ceremony of an underground mass is so staidly framed as to feel religious in the most serious sense, and there’s no mistaking the weight Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto wish to confer to moments of piety.

These foundations are let down by some hokey writing and acting. Less respectable projects like Clash of the Titans are mocked for their hodge-podge of accents and dubious representations of nationality, so why not a Scorsese film? In fact why not more so? Garfield vacillates between perhaps Portuguese and a standard theatrical Transatlantic accent. Liam Neeson was apparently permitted to simply ignore the issue altogether.

The climax of the film in a Japanese prison does not do justice to the build up. Choices regarding voice-over and monologue are enough to cheapen Scorsese’s exploration of his themes. A less venerated director would have been tarred and feathered for some of the choices made in Silence.

Writing collaborator Jay Cocks’ script under-delivers on its promise, and Silence ultimately screens as a Scorsese passion project that perhaps had to happen but needn’t have. The story dithers when it should drive forward and skims past its most interesting characters at their most interesting intersections. It is a story that may exist much more clearly in the minds of its creators than its representation on film.

*Writer’s note to the RMITV-reading bartender who asked what I was writing:
I didn’t want to dampen your enthusiasm about seeing Silence by saying what I really thought. Now you know.

Score: 6/10

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