Silence is the first movie I saw in 2017 and I made sure that was the case. This was, probably, my most anticipated release of 2016 as it has been on the horizon for as long as I’ve been a fan of Scorsese and cinema in general (the two sort of go hand in hand but, naturally, I discovered movies before I discovered Scorsese). Not only were my own cinematic tastes and sensibilities heavily informed by Scorsese’s filmmaking, but to this day he remains an important beacon of film craft and cinematic expression as high-art for me. No matter what form it takes, a new Scorsese movie is an event for the medium, a triumph worth studying and celebrating. His status as one of the greatest filmmakers who has every lived is unquestionable and, unlike many of his contemporaries from the 1970s, his output is consistently fascinating and exciting to this day. He doesn’t need to make a movie as good as Taxi Driver or Goodfellas to stay relevant, he just needs to keep making movies his way. As someone who is addicted to cinema like a junkie is addicted to heroin, I see getting to live in a time when Martin fuckin’ Scorsese is still making movies as a real privilege. The book has closed on Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Renoir, Welles, Lang, Dreyer, Bergman, Kurosawa, Akerman, Antonioni and hundreds of other titan filmmakers from around the world. We’ll never get new movies by them, but Scorsese’s book is ongoing. How can cinema be dead when one of its finest artists is still out there creating? It can’t be.
So what’s more exciting than a new Martin Scorsese picture? It’s a Martin Scorsese picture that Martin Scorsese has been trying to make for over 25 years. Like, this shit means something to him. As much as I love and dissect films like The Departed, Hugo, Shutter Island or The Wolf of Wall Street, they feel like what they are: artistic properties acquired by studios and producers which Scorsese has imprinted his own eye onto. And that’s fine. But there are certain Scorsese movies that come from a deeper, darker place. That come from somewhere achingly personal within. When you watch Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, New York, New York, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun or Goodfellas there’s a sense that only Scorsese could make those movies. A sense that making those movies was life or death for him, and to experience those stakes in the form of artistic expression is really something. While not all of those films are as highly regarded as his others, they feel Scorsese-esque in ways some of his other films do not. It’s been a while since we got one of those Martin Scorsese pictures, and Silence, which the director has been trying to get off the ground since the 1980s and, apparently, directed his previous few movies in order to acquire funding for, promised to be a return to that kind of passionate, open-wound expression. I’ve followed the progress of Silence for well over a decade now, so to finally see it materialize is pretty damn extraordinary. There’s no way in hell I was going to step into 2017 with any other movie. Scorsese is the Rosetta stone of my love of movies and movie-making and if he’s going to spend a quarter of a century trying to make a film, you better believe I’ll be first in line for the experience once it finally lands.
So how did it turn out? A lot of people have called Silence a very atypical Scorsese movie, which is true if you’re only familiar with a certain portion of his filmography–the gangster pictures or the showy melodramas. But secondary to those films Scorsese has always been churning out work that doesn’t rely on flashy camera moves, jukebox cuts and crackerjack editing. Films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy or Kundun especially all showcase a more austere filmmaker who knows exactly when to reign it in should the material call for it. Silence is another film in that mode, and it might be the best one to date.
The film follows two 17th Century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver) who set out to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who was lost in Japan years before and is believed to have apostatized his faith at the hands of the country’s brutal tormentors, determined to outlaw Christianity permanently from their lands. Despite the sprawling running time, grand location work and giant themes, this is Scorsese at his most minimalist. From the extraordinarily simple title font that seems to immediately dispel any notion of intrusive “style”, to the quiet, hushed sound design that favours natural elements–wind, insects, breath, sea and most predominantly, silence itself–over action and conflict, you settle into this film with an increasing sense of respect and intensity.
The restraint of this film, while present in other Scorsese pictures about themes both different and similar, is quietly startling. The technique occasionally transcends the material and the thrill of partaking in a piece of pure cinema takes over. The space in the frame, the stillness, the absolute ambience of 17th Century Japan–the skies, the elements–bubbling with an existential cloud of looming prosecution was constantly gripping. I’ve never seen images like these in a Scorsese film before, and considering we’re now twenty four deep (not counting his documentaries) that’s pretty re-assuring.
While, for the most part, Silence is a film that holds a frame rather than investigate it (though glorious whip-pans abound), Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s gift for an earth-shattering edit is, as ever, on hand to deliver a punch to the gut where a camera move isn’t appropriate. Christ himself appears in Silence as both an artist’s rendering granted full-screen importance, or as a disembodied voice (supplied by Ciaran Hinds, as far as I can tell) haunting Rodrigues’s subconscious in his most desperate time of need. All sound completely drops out as “Christ” speaks, and the screen is transformed into a presentation of holy worship. Never in my life have I felt a movie theatre feel like a Church as much as it does in these sequences. It’s pretty stunning and a potent reminder of Scorsese’s (and Schoonmaker’s) gift for constructing pieces of cinema that feel utterly transformative. It made me feel like I, too, was hearing the voice of God whisper in my ear.
Fittingly, it all feels very Japanese. The wide compositions, head-to-toe framing and epic backdrops mean that every close up, usually of a totem or symbol, feels especially sacred and of great importance (see also: Ozu). When Rodrigues presents a crucifix to a group of Japanese peasants who secretly practice Christianity, you instantly feel the grandiosity of this gesture, not to mention the danger. In this world, the cross is both a vigil of hope and belief as well as a harbinger of death and torture, depending on who’s eyes fall upon it. When we first meet Ferreira in the film’s opening, he talks us through the various (but not all) torture methods enforced by the ruling Inquisitor, Masashige (Issey Ogata). They involve pouring hot water slowly onto exposed skin and extreme crucifixions atop mountains or at sea. Immediately we are immersed in a valley of violence. The sense of impending torture looming over Silence is unusual in that it’s not just a threat of physical violence, but an attack on beliefs and a dismantling of the soul which is somehow even more unrelenting. The torturers want to destroy an entire religion and a belief system, and want to instill the fear of God into their people by essentially confirming that there is no God.
As a filmmaker who has succeeded in depicting the horrors of violence in a variety of visceral and upsetting ways, it’s interesting to see Scorsese come at it from a more cerebral and deeply spiritual angle than a primarily visceral one. This is about violence of the faith and holy terror. One of the most emotionally devastating sequences Scorsese has ever filmed is in this movie; a Japanese peasant being crucified at sea for days on end, finally lets his life wash away from him after singing a song to those watching. His body falls from the cross into the tide and is collected and burned. But the water filling his corpse transforms the flames in a grand plume of white smoke. That smoke haunts the entire movie, and eventually returns to punctuate the film’s final image (which I won’t spoil). As with any Scorsese movie, all visual signifiers are of extreme importance and it is as visually rich as anything else I saw in the cinema in 2016.
As Rodrigues and Garrupe go deeper into these dangerous lands in search of Ferreira, who has taken on mythic status in Japan due to his reported denunciation of the faith, I found myself thinking of the quintessential heart of darkness movie; Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Like that movie, Silence (or Apostatize Now as I like to call it) unfolds like a slow descent into some sort of inner madness and hysteria with Ferreira’s Kurtz-like figure in place off-screen as the ultimate endgame. Eventually Rodrigues is captured by the Inquisitor and slowly driven to breaking point through a series of psychological and physical torments. The longer he holds onto his faith, he is forced to watch other captured Christians be murdered in his place. It’s easy to see why Scorsese, an eternally catholic filmmaker who’s sense of guilt burns through all his best work, would be so obsessed with this material. Think back to Charlie testing the flame with his fingers in Mean Streets, the “blasphemous” dream of The Last Temptation of Christ or even the young Henry Hill crucified in freeze-frame against a wall of flames in Goodfellas; as Rodrigues inches closer to Ferreira and the temptation to apostatize increases, you can’t help but feel like this is the film Scorsese has been building towards his entire career. It is the culmination of themes and imagery that have been there since day one. I doubt this will be his final word on those obsessions, but the film repeatedly feels like an exorcism for the filmmaker, like a relieved sigh as a creative itch that has evaded him for over two decades is finally scratched away and replaced with artistic satisfaction.
In a film as punishing as Silence, a lot of the hard work falls on that of the actors. Andrew Garfield is given the brunt of the heavy lifting as Rodrigues, the film’s anchor and moral compass. It is a complicated role, one rooted in the character’s pride and confidence that his faith can overcome any torment thrown his way, which slowly evolves into a realization that his pride may be naive and misplaced. While Garfield is strong, his performance didn’t feel as especially earth-shattering as the material might have inspired from a different actor. Not that Garfield feels miscast–he’s fine–but his choices, in contrast to Scorsese’s and those of his ace Japanese supporting cast–feel strangely predictable. He sees something upsetting, he cries. He sees something frustrating, he looks frustrated. He wants to be heard, so he shouts. There’s nothing especially daring or experimental about the performance. Maybe that’s not what it needed, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a level of greatness that could have been achieved with this character that Garfield doesn’t quite get to. Adam Driver, on the other hand, is an actor I’ve greatly enjoyed watch rise to prominence over the past few years. Unlike Garfield, he is full of unusual choices and surprising interpretations of characters. As Garrupe he is presented physically gaunt and skewed (the result of a drastic weight-loss) and he handles much of the film’s bigger beats and religious frustration in the earlier scenes until the story has him disappear for a good chunk of the running time. When he’s gone, his presence is missed.
The film’s stand-out performance, at least as far as its Western cast members are concerned, comes courtesy of Liam Neeson. It’s been a long time since Neeson took on a role of this stature and dramatic weight. Father Ferreira looms large over the entire film and when he reappears in the final act, dramatically transformed since we last saw him, he has such presence that Scorsese can essentially hang a substantial amount of the film’s denouement solely on his tête-à-têtes with Garfield. It’s one of those performances that reminds you how gifted the actor behind it is. And for Neeson, a performer we’ve seen occupy a limited and specific mode for the past few years (quite successfully might I add), it is a welcome and endearing reminder.
The film’s (metaphorical) angels and demons are handled by a variety of Japanese actors and they all put in exceptional and memorable work. Yoshi Oida and part-time filmmaker and cyberpunk master Shinya Tsukamoto are the underground Christians who shelter Rodrigues and Garrupe during their initial tenure on Japanese soil. Yosuke Kubozuka plays Kichijiro, the disgraced alcoholic who smuggles them into the country and whose fluctuating devotion to the faith frustrates Rodrigues to no end; bringing the film its only sense of comic relief as well as enhancing the overall sense of crushing tragedy. Issey Ogata instills the diabolical Inquisitor (a real historical figure) with malevolent glee, dishing out death sentences and crushing men’s souls between smacking lips and the shuffled gait of an old man, thus becoming one of the most fascinating and unexpected villains in Scorsese’s colourful rogues gallery. Ogata’s scenes with Garfield are some of the film’s highlights and second only to those he shares with Neeson. It is a wonderfully eclectic cast, and Scorsese builds an emotional connection to almost all of them. Their faces, their personalities, their pain, disgraces and triumphs are all felt and honoured.
Perhaps the greatest success of Silence is that, as a semi-mainstream film, it tackles faith head-on and does so with enough seriousness and respect as well as masterly aesthetic and tonal control to feel neither damning nor preachy. This film studies faith as a concept, embraces it, questions it and confronts it. It feels gargantuan in its ambition and sweep yet wholly intimate and chamber-like in its focus and performances. The quiet moments are among the quietest and most solitary I’ve ever experienced, and the heavier, dramatic beats land harder as a result. Personally speaking, I’m not specifically religious but I do have faith in cinema and a faith in movies to be great, to move and transport me into a different realm. I don’t know if there is a God, but with filmmaking as my altar, Scorsese is the closest thing I’ve got. How thrilling to see him make a film so thematically audacious at this point in his career, a film that feels like a true expression of his passions, interests and fears, a film that feels so thoroughly obsessed over and personal. Considering that Scorsese is out there, making films that continue to inspire my sensibilities and excite my senses in a variety of ways, regardless of their canon status (masterpiece vs. great/good) that’s something to be celebrated (I celebrated by seeing it twice in three days).
In my eyes, Silence is a great movie and a major work from one of America’s premiere artists. Perhaps it’s too challenging and austere to join the top-tier ranks of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and there is a slight stretch during the back-end that does feel a little drawn out and unnecessary. Regardless, I do believe that as time goes on, this will be a film that is remembered, studied and applauded. A lot of people thought cinema died in 2016 and I respectfully disagree. But to those who thought it did die, even in the face of many other great films released in the last twelve months, surely a Scorsese picture this good, delivered at the eleventh hour no-less, is the closest thing we’ve got to a good old-fashioned resurrection.
Silence is in cinemas now.
Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks; based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō; starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yosuke Kubozuka, Yoshi Oida and Issey Ogata; 161 minutes.