Silence (2016)

  • Time: 159 min
  • Genre: Drama | History
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Cast: Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver


The story of two Catholic missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face the ultimate test of faith when they travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) – at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and their presence forbidden.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: In the hands of master filmmaker, Martin Scorsese has made a beautifully crafted but preachy (and boring) historical drama.

    GRADE: C+

    SYNOPSIS: In feudal Japan, a religious culture war ensues as two missionaries try to rescue one of their own.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Similarities with other sources abound in Martin Scorsese’s epic film, Silence. Two missionaries are sent to a foreign country to spread the word of their prophet. No, it’s not Roland Joffe’s The Mission, Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast, James Clavell’s Shogun, or, for that matter, The Book of Mormons…although if the film has some comedy or musical numbers, it would have at least been memorably. The film is actually more akin to Apocalypse Now…as these two envoys are sent on a mission to stop a former leader who has fallen from grace. Not the Vietnam War, where thousands were brutally killed…rather the Holy War, where thousands were brutally killed. Here the battle is over religious souls in this cinematic philosophic debate of a film.

    Set in the 17th century, this historical drama follows two Jesuit priests, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), whose mission is to travel to Japan and rescue their former mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neesom) from renouncing his faith. As they journey to a strange land, they are met with a violent culture that will stop Christianity by any means possible and demand apostasy (the renunciation of one’s religious tenets) or death to any of its worshipers. The padres cling to their faith while their flock is sadistically slaughtered in grisly detail.

    One cannot deny that Silence is grandiose filmmaking. Mr. Scorsese knows how to craft his tale with enough style and dramatic flourishes. One could not expect less from its great director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks. His images are on an epic scale and the photography by Rodrigo Prieto is just glorious to behold.

    But there are inherent problems with the screenplay film itself. Silence trips up on its own words. The film regurgitates scenes of torture, both psychological and physical, that weaken the overall impact and border on the excessive. Its talk-torture-talk-torture format becomes redundant.

    While the subject makes for fascinating viewing, the road traveled is filled with lengthy scenes with languishing pacing, underdeveloped characters, and an overuse of voiceover narration to explain the plot rather than show the emotional anguish. The spectacle is visually supreme while the dialog has a heavy-handed message that never seem genuine. There is just too much proselytizing and arguing over the word of God that it becomes superficial debates au nauseam and overshadows the characters who seem more plot devices than real people. There is nothing unique about the narrative. History has already proven that many have died under the guise of religion (and will continue to do so). The film is more sermon-like than it need be. Mr. Scorsese is literally preaching to the choir, with enough fire and brimstone to last seven Sundays.

    Mr. Garfield is compelling as Father Sebastian. His character is such a direct Christ figure in appearance and stance. Almost too saintly to be considered human, he becomes a superhero of God. Yet the actor gives a nuanced and multi-layered performance. Mr. Neeson, in a smaller role, brings some gravitas as well. But Mr. Driver, who is an interesting presence, has little screen time and simply disappears midway through the film, which is a misstep. More problematic however is some grave miscasting in two pivotal roles: Issey Ogata as the inquisitor supplies very little menace to his role and Yôsuke Kubozuka as the weak Kichijiro becomes a form of unintentional comic relief as written. The tragic tone of this character eludes him.

    Silence remains a strong and passionate work by Mr. Scorsese. It is a serious work of art with a Capital S (and add a Capital B for Boring). The film is in dire need of judicious editing and major rewrites. On one hand, it relentlessly rails against the Catholic Church and its teachings while showing a reverence to its own piety. The film avoids its own silent code and tends to shout its message. tends to shout its message. There’s far too much sound and fury in this well-made film when a quiet noise would have been a more powerful statement about the persecution and tyranny that befell its believers. And, I must confess, the slow and laborious pacing of this film was a personal hell for this moviegoer. No matter how wonderful this film looks, and on that count it succeeds, the film ultimately left me praying for a swift conclusion.

    Silence is a major disappointment from a master filmmaker. Let us pray that his energy and vision comes to a better end in his next creative venture. Can I hear an amen to that?

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  • Silence opens and closes on the sound of crickets. That small sound connotes silence. You only hear crickets when there is no other sound, especially not the sound of man and his cities and his machines. In the silence from man we seek the presence of God.
    But there is only silence from God too. Father Rodriguez chafes at the silence of God. Without direct divine instruction man must determine — whether by logic or by faith or accident — what course of action God wants him to take.
    He and Father Garupe assume its their mission from God to go into alien and antipathetic Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferrera. They seek to disprove the charge of his apostasy. Instead they end up validating it.
    Ferrera is the inadvertent cause of their mission. But he wilfully provides Rodriguez’s salvation when he persuades him to join him, to perform the abandonment of Christianity and to embrace Buddhism. This gamble with their souls saves other Christians’ lives. In contrast, Garupe risks his body to save other Christians’ lives — and all are lost. Conclusion: the way to serve the silent invisible God is to serve humanity. Man is God’s visible presence.
    When Ferrera and Rodriguez serve the fugitive Christian community they have (literally) unearthed in Japan, their function is restricted to ritual, confession and the promise of a paradisal afterlife. For these promises many are tortured, killed or at best driven into a life of terror.
    Kichijiro races between betrayals and confessions. The crazed animal outsider recalls the Mifune character in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Here he represents the power and futility of the Confession. He earnestly needs it but continually relapses into sin. His subplot scores the shallowness of the religion of ritual. It validates Ferrera’s and Rodriguez’s priorities when they save Christians’ lives by abandoning the performance of their faith.
    There are two key scenes of ambiguity. In one Rodriguez sees a vision of Jesus in the water and hears a voice advising his apostasy. Whether this is a mad hallucination (not without ample cause), the voice of God, the voice of Jesus, the voice of Ferrara — it doesn’t matter. The point is he gets that radical urge, whether from within or without, and it prompts his proper service to man.
    In the last shot Rodriguez is discovered in his flaming coffin to clutch his little crucifix. Within the Buddhist funeral he clings to his Christian emblem and faith. He has been vigilant not to violate his apostasy, to the point of denying Kichijiro another absolution. But in his most secret corner he retains his abandoned faith.
    Incidentally, Ferrara bears the name of the count in Browning’s My Last Duchess. In the poem Ferrara is a wealthy Italian Renaissance nobleman, cultured, sophisticated, aristocratic to a fault. The fault is standing on rank and privilege at the cost of feeling and humanity. He has his last duchess killed for not sufficiently respecting his status. Scorsese’s Ferrera transcended his literary parallel by abandoning the letter of Christianity to serve humanity through Buddhism. Serving God through mankind is better than dis-serving humanity in the name of God.
    That gives this film significant contemporary relevance. Its sometimes gruesome assault on Christianity evokes the current slaughter of Christians throughout Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East, where only Israel provides Christians and their religion freedom and support. (Of course that doesn’t deter several churches and many Christians from supporting Israel’s genocidal enemies instead.)
    But the film’s subject Christianity also has a broader reference. As the two heroic priests subordinate their faith to serve humanity, the Inquisitor becomes the villain for his fervour in abusing humanity to serve Buddhism. As we read today’s headlines we find the film’s theme and dynamic as pertinent to Islam as to Buddhism and Christianity. All religions are susceptible to abusing humanity in the name of their faith. Sad. But reformable?
    The opening scene, once the darkness of the crickets has cleared, reveals a steaming smoky landscape, hilly and arid, with pools of scalding water with which to torture the believers. The 15th Century Japan setting may seem a world away from the Mean Streets of Scorses’s New York parables. But the theme is the same. Like the smoking dark streets that start Taxi Driver the landscape is an inferno in which man stumbles trying to find salvation amid the temptations of both life and faith — with nary a word from any God.

  • Based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project Silence is by no means the director’s definitive masterpiece, but it is a profound and rigorous meditation on faith and the continual struggle to maintain it against all odds.

    Recalling Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman in its classicism, epic intimacy and almost severe restraint, Silence begins Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnessing his fellow priests being tortured by the Japanese. The purpose of the torture, which entails boiling water slowly dripped upon the priests’ exposed flesh, is to force the men of the cloth to apostasise, renounce their faith by stepping on a stone with the image of Jesus. It is 1633, nearly two decades after the Japanese enacted the Edict of Expulsion in order to ban and eradicate Christianity from its lands.

    The mystery of whether Ferreira renounced or died in protest to demonstrate the power of his faith is the catalyst for the main narrative. Two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), both pupils of Ferreira’s teachings, set off to discover the truth, smuggled into the Japanese village of Tomogi by alcoholic fisherman Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). There the two are overwhelmed with the Kakure Kirishitan, Christians who have been hiding their faith and who are eager to finally receive sacraments. Garupe marvels at the depths of their devotion, wondering how they can endure so much suffering and why such suffering must even exist for the faithful.

    Indeed, the suffering is almost unbelievable in its cruelty. Women are wrapped into straw mats and set ablaze or thrown overboard into the waters, people hung upside down inside a pit as blood slowly trickles from an incision in their neck, and, in one of the film’s most visceral moments, strapped onto crosses as they’re slowly pummeled by the waves. And yet they will not deny their faith. If the villagers’ suffering is physical, Rodrigues’ is emotional. He’s prepared for martyrdom, even welcoming the chance to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, but wholly unprepared for the diabolical methods of the Japanese, who threaten to inflict punishment upon the villagers until Rodrigues and Garupe apostatise.

    Through it all, he appeals to God for guidance and is met with resounding silence. Yet is it his faith or his arrogance that compels his suffering? Garfield underwent a similar crisis of faith in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, where his Desmond Doss was ostracised for his refusal to bear arms during combat in WWII because it went against his religion, but his performance here conveys a more complex piety. In many respects, one could look upon this as Scorsese’s rendering of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Ferreira as Mr. Kurtz and Rodrigues as Marlow grappling with the darkness of the human condition and the horror…the horror of his own seeming weakness in the face of the villagers’ and his fellow priests’ fortitude.

    Technically, Silence is a gorgeous work. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures the harsh beauty of the landscape (the film was shot in Taiwan) and imbues the interior scenes with painterly hues. Scorsese’s longtime editor, the phenomenal Thelma Schoonmaker, provides the film with its elegiac and exquisitely patient rhythm. That rhythm may prove too deliberate for viewers more used to Scorsese’s virtuosic razzle-dazzle, but those willing to stay the course will be rewarded as the film has an almost surprising resonance. Starkly eloquent and never less than commanding, Silence may be the apotheosis for Scorsese’s evocations of religion in his filmography.

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