Scorsese Hits A High With Thundering "Silence"

There are great filmmakers, and then there are great filmmakers who make great filmmaking look like a breezy Saturday afternoon of minigolf. These are the legends; artists whose movies are unmistakably theirs, their filmic DNA self-evident in even their slightest works. 74-year-old Martin Scorsese has had his missteps and detours, but his best stacks up against that of anyone who’s ever done it. Add another one to the evidence file. 17th century ecclesiastical epic “Silence” is an urgent reminder of the Little Italy kid’s brilliance, a staggering work of absolute confidence and absolute uncertainty that endeavors to both embody and crack the great conundrum of faith.

Outwardly, Scorsese’s self-described passion project seems unlike the patently obsessive director. There’s no zippy cursing or wanton violence or Leonardo DiCaprio, but it ends up one of the most impassioned works he’s ever signed his name to. Don’t believe an artist of his stature would have to toil for decades to get a film made? The proof is in the budino. The struggle is felt in every frame.

Based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical fiction novel, “Silence” stars Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network”) as Sebastião Rodrigues, a character loosely based on real-life Jesuit Giuseppe Chiara. Rodrigues and fellow priest Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are in Portugal when they first hear the rumors out of Japan: Their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced his faith to appease the country’s violently anti-Christian aristocracy. It’s suggested that he’s even taken a Japanese wife. Rodrigues and Garupe meet the gossip with incredulity, pleading with an elder (Ciaran Hinds) to head east and find their teacher.

Once in Japan, the pair’s mission quickly becomes one of survival – their own and that of Christianity in Japan. The church is on life support in the country, outlawed and punishable by death where it had flourished just years earlier. As the duo moves about the Japanese countryside, hidden Christians surface for some tangible interaction with the faith they’ve been forced to repress, putting Rodrigues and Garupe in mortal danger time and again. Eventually, they separate out of safety concerns, and Garfield is left to carry the bulk of the two hour and forty minute film. The 33-year-old actor is more than up for it.

Rodrigues, at once coolly pious and bubbling over with angst, is the most fully formed character in Garfield’s already impressive career. Internal conflict has never looked as convincing as in his eyes and vocal inflections. The actor’s kindly-but-austere aura is tailor made for the material and an ideal counterpoint for the madness engulfing Rodrigues. Driver’s limited screen time precludes the same kind of impact as his co-star, but he’s every bit as committed, going so far as extreme weight loss to illustrate the grave circumstances the leads are forced to endure.

The supporting cast is every bit as impressive. Yosuke Kubozuka is superb as Kichijiro, a Japanese fisherman who recurs throughout the film. Via a particularly upsetting flashback, we see Kichijiro apostatize to save his life, only to watch his family refuse and be burned to death. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Mokichi goes through similar tribulations, the actor turning in the supporting cast’s most physically demanding performance, symbolizing the danger invited by the priests’ mere presence in Japan. And Liam Neeson is a great match for the missing priest who opens the film and whose presence hangs heavy from off screen. Both he and Garfield lend some exceptional voiceover work that adds yet another dimension to an already multi-dimensional work.

Another dimension still: Rodrigo Prieto’s on-location photography evokes latter-day Terence Malick, except without the narrative inertia. Shot it Taiwan, it all makes for an appropriately jaw-dropping backdrop for the ideological warfare unfolding in front of it, offering immersion for both actors and viewers. And for the first time in a long time, Scorsese’s disregard for continuity editing augments instead of distracts. It adds to the impressionistic nature of the film, some accompanying audio editing issues aside. ILM’s unobtrusive CGI is similarly suitable, accenting instead of overwhelming.

Behind the grand scenery and muscular performances is an utterly moving, robust story that Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks deliver with absolute earnestness. It’s never cynical or, alternatively, syrupy; just a smart, stirring, contemplative testimony-slash-crisis of faith that’s sure to speak just as loudly, if differently, to the non-spiritual as it will the faithful. And the inherently relatable Garfield is an idyllic vessel for such naked grappling with life’s biggest questions. When Rodrigues is faced with the idea his faith is costing lives, real flesh and blood lives, there is no actor but Garfield who could pull off the mix of confusion, anger, nerve, and every other of a thousand feelings at once.

The lengthy running time and ostensibly dry subject matter will keep some moviegoers away. It shouldn’t. “Silence” is the work of a legend very near the top of his game, conjuring a time and place rarely seen on film, making a movie no one else could make, doing that thing that legends do – making greatness look easy. Lend Marty your ear. His passion project just might keep you rapt for 160 minutes. It just might change you.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 23, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shinya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Yoshi Oida, Issey Ogata, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds
MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content)