Movie Review: Silence
R | 2h 41min
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
by Jason Koenigsberg
Decades in the making, false starts, a grueling shoot and long post production, Martin Scorsese’s spiritual passion project Silence finally arrives in wide release. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no, it depends on what the viewer brings to the table. This is Scorsese’s bleakest epic yet as he delves deep into an exploration of religion with zero humor and only a glimmer of hope at the end. Silence is a great marriage of his two lifelong passions, cinema and Christianity, but it is also a difficult film to watch and was not meant to be easily accessible for most audiences. Even though it is the only major epic during this Oscar season, once it is over you will understand exactly why it was shut out of the Golden Globes and many other Awards thus far.
That does not mean that Silence is a bad film. On the contrary, it is just a film that focuses on misery, hopelessness and false prophets, all themes and concepts that are not typical Oscar fodder. Even films about the Holocaust usually have some semblance of hope and happiness since we know the Germans lost the war and the camps were liberated. Silence is strictly an examination of man’s morals and weaknesses being tested and broken.
The opening shot is of a Japanese man standing in a heavy mist next to severed heads. We then cut to Liam Neeson and his character delivers some narration about the strength of faith against imminent torture and possibly death. The plot is straight out of Hearts of Darkness. Two Jesuit priests played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are sent on a mission to find their mentor (Neeson) and spread Catholicism. It takes place between the 1630’s and 1680’s almost solely in Japan. Silence is exquisitely shot with outstanding production design. There is a lot of Christian symbolism and imagery, but that is to be expected even in a Scorsese film not overtly about religion and mans necessity to have faith in a higher power to believe in. It is a dark film and at times goes a little too heavy on the fog machine, the cinematography and sound design place a strong emphasis on nature and how it can coincide with or contrast spiritual faith. Silence is reminiscent of a Kurosawa film and Scorsese would certainly take that as a compliment.
The priests and Japanese Christians suffer a lot at the hands of the Japanese government for not denouncing their beliefs, it alludes to the Book of Job. Silence is very bold in the way it explores the absence of God and does not give the audience much hope. It is also one of very few films to explore people’s need for tangible signs of faith versus actual faith with no clear evidence of God. It also deals a lot with themes of betrayal in spiritual, emotional and physical ways. These are not easy topics to get a mainstream audience to accept and Scorsese should be commended for tackling such brave concepts that are guaranteed to turn people off.
Strangely enough, one of the films weakest aspects was the editing by Scorsese’s long time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. She has edited almost all of his films yet Silence was strange because it felt like a lot of scenes were missing or had been shortened. Together Scorsese and Schoonmaker have put together some of the best films ever made (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas) with running times often between two and three hours. However none of their films ever felt long or slow like Silence does. Casino, The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street all have longer run times than this film, but they zip by. Even though Silence felt slow and is a difficult watch, the story and character development actually may have benefited if it were longer.
Silence is also an interesting allegory for the times we live in. The persecution of Christians in Japan parallels the state of Muslims in many parts of the world in the twentieth century. For thousands of years religion has always been a taboo subject and created more death and division than almost anything else. This film was daring enough to ask its audience to look at that concept as they watch, not an easy task.
If you want to see a similar story stay home and watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979), a more blatant screen adaptation of Hearts of Darkness. But if you have already seen that, Silence is worth your time as long as you know what you are getting into. Lesser Scorsese is still filled with more fire and passion than most other movies you will find in theaters today.