At 2 hours 41 minutes, Silence is a mission of a film. It’s a film that requires a certain type of plot to maintain its emotive impact, certain aspects of undulation to underpin the beauty of its shots. Silence, regrettably, flatlined at the two hour mark, yet it was by no means a bad film, and one that certainly should not have been snubbed as harshly as it has been by the critics and both the Golden Globes and BAFTAs.
Silence is Scorsese’s recent epic historical drama film, following the story of two Jesuit 17th-century priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to locate their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) and spread Catholicism, in a time where those who did so were being tortured and murdered by the Buddhist authorities.
Scorsese with this film has achieved the difficult feat of making it utterly gruesome yet stunningly beautiful at the same time. Torture is rife; the film opens with Christians being tortured with boiling water, and the entirety of the film involves water torture, spiritual torture, suspension, violence, even beheading. It is unapologetically horrendous and brusque. This is interspersed, however, with beautiful cinematography; admittedly gratuitous birds-eye view shots showing the scope of the locations in which they filmed; extreme close-ups of religious paraphernalia, the lush mountains and grasslands of Taiwan and Taipei, where the film was entirely shot.
Andrew Garfield’s performance was phenomenal. His transformation from a composed and pious Jesuit, to a neo-saviour for Japanese villagers, to an antagonised, hallucinating and perhaps egotistic prisoner was played out with a maturity and level of skill unparalleled in the backlog of his career. The Japanese cast, led by Yōsuke Kubozuka with his portrayal of Kichijiro, the symbolic Judas, are extraordinary, giving the film its due level of authenticity that has been so ardently castigated by critics who emphasise a Western encumberment.
Some are saying that this is Neeson’s best performance – this, I find hard to believe. He’s in it for barely 30 minutes, doesn’t bother attempting the Portuguese accent and really owes the emotion in his scenes to co-star Garfield. Another significant critique of the film is for its Orientalist undertones, giving us a Western view of 17th century Japan through the portrayal of “good” Christianity and “bad” Buddhism, the “savage” Japanese compared to the “peaceful” Jesuits. Although not unfounded, I find this a harsh designation. Garfield, as Sebastião Rodrigues, was criticised throughout for allowing his people to die for him, flagging up some serious flaws in the Christian belief system.
What I found particularly interesting about the film was the Japanese view of Christianity as more of a Western hegemonic force as opposed to a spiritual intrusion; the violence enacted upon the Christians seemed disjointed with the almost passive and mild-mannered Chief Inspector responsible for the unthinkable slaughter unfolding. This is perhaps mirrored in the fact that the Inspector’s character was played by a comedian, Issey Ogata. Another directorial technique I found jarring was the surrealist apparitions of Jesus, for example; although intended to parallel Padre Rodrigues’ likeliness to Jesus himself, it seemed oddly placed in the otherwise lucid genre of the historical epic.
Sound has perhaps never been so important in a film that has virtually no soundtrack. Literal silence is utilised in a deliciously pretentious manner at the most climactic moments in the film. When Garfield’s Rodrigues demands “Christ is here… I just can’t hear him,” he metaphorically embodies what the title of the film is attempting to imply; God’s silence. God allowing the massacre of Christians, the lack of reply from the Jesuit’s prayers.
Silence is hard work. Like all hard work though, if you devote yourself to it, it is incredibly rewarding.