Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yôsuke Kubozuka
Released: 1st January 2017 (UK)
“But who is going to pay to see this film?” The woman sitting behind me asked after the multi media screening of Silence, the new epic from Martin Scorsese.
“Scorsese fans will see it,” I said confidently. Arguably the greatest living director, the man has a sizeable army of fans, so I felt justified in my confidence.
However, on the way home I reflected further on the potential audience for the film which doesn’t have the popular appeal of The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s not a classic like Goodfellas. And it won’t spawn quotes and comedy sketches like Taxi Driver.
But Silence is also not to be identified simply by what it is not. It is an epic by a master filmmaker and deserves to be judged on its own merits not in comparison to the director’s previous works.
The cinematography is stupendous, the subject matter is big and the acting is mostly as good as anything being nominated for awards.
It is also a brave film in current Hollywood and I suspect, a deeply personal one for the Scorsese. The two things are connected. Scorsese planned to become a priest in his youth and the fascination with the life of priests is evident here. The bravery comes in the fact that Christianity is unashamedly upfront and centre in the film in a way that it hadn’t been in a mainstream movie for decades. Shot after shot of small, roughly carved crucifixes and the way they are venerated by those who hold them in trembling hands tell us that the director is meditating on the nature of faith. Deep, pure faith. The kind you die for.
And there is lots of dying in Silence. Gruesome deaths for the crime of believing in God and Jesus.
It’s 1633 Japan. Jesuit priests are facing the ultimate test of their faith as they try to spread Christianity in a country where the authorities are deeply and violently hostile to their mission. They come up with ever more brutal ways to torture and kill converts who they demand renounce their faith by stepping on images of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Sometimes they kill the priests too. Other times they force them to watch the harrowing demise of those they have converted.
At the beginning of the film we see Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnessing such horrors. He has an agonising choice; watch more of his flock and young priests suffer and die or apostatise, that is, give up his faith and live as a Buddhist as his tormentors demand. We don’t see the decision he makes.
The story then moves to follow the perilous journey of his two young, former pupils, Father Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpre (Adam Driver) as they secretly enter Japan to search for him. He is believed by the Portuguese order from which he came to have betrayed Jesus, given up his heritage and to be living as a Buddhist with a Japanese wife.
The two young priests don’t want to believe this of their former mentor and are determined to find him and prove otherwise. What they discover instead is a Japan engaged in an horrific spiritual civil war. Converts to Christianity practice their faith secretly in impoverished villages, the depth of their faith putting the priests’ own doubts to shame. Meanwhile the authorities are determined to forcibly stamp out the religion before it spreads further.
The Silence of the title is the weight of God’s silence in the face of the horrors inflicted on his believers that Garfield’s idealistic young priest is forced to observe once he and his flock are caught by the authorities. Will the strength of his faith help him survive or will he go the way of his one time mentor and trample on the face of Jesus?
Garfield, in the main role, gives it his all. The Japanese cast, particularly Issey Ogata as the Inquisitor Inoue, are uniformly superb. And yet, there is such a detached quality to the story that we never quite share in Garfield’s internal agony as he wrestles with the doubts that plague his mind as to what he is meant to do. It’s almost like watching a gory but ultimately clinical version of suffering and conflict that never quite touches you or involves you. In this respect it reminded me of last year’s The Revenant. There are also way too many false endings in what is a long film.
So who will pay to see this film? A respectable number of people, I expect. Scorsese fans, faith groups, fans of epic historical dramas, film students, filmmakers, awards watchers if it picks up any Oscars steam (it hasn’t received any awards love so far). That’s quite an array of people. So, to the lady at the screening, it will do just fine.