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Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, David Lee, and Gastón Pavlovich
Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô
With: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, and Yôsuke Kubozuka
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge
Runtime: 161 min
Release Date: 13 January 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

It is not unusual for acclaimed director Martin Scorsese’s movies to reflect or explore his relationship with his Roman Catholic faith. Usually he deals with these themes as subtextual elements in films that touch on issues of guilt, redemption, and sacrifice. But in pictures like Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), The Last Temptation of Christ (1983), Kundun (1997), and his latest, Silence, the sustaining and destructive powers of religious belief are placed front and center.

Silence is based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel of the same name, which Japanese director Masahiro Shinoda made as Chinmoku in 1971.  The historical drama is set in the 17th century, when Christianity was outlawed in Japan. The story follows two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel from Portugal to Japan in order to support to the villages where Catholicism is still practiced in secret, and to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has apparently renounced his faith after being tortured.

The film is long and slow and almost totally free of the director’s penchant for spectacle and visual razzmatazz. The camera work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Brokeback Mountain, Broken Embraces) is remarkably restrained.  The editorial pace—which in recent years Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker have often ramped up to incomprehensible levels—is glacial despite the tense situations in which the characters find themselves.  Indeed the movie almost seems designed to test a viewer’s patience in parallel with the way the two priests are constantly challenged throughout the story.  And while Scorsese doesn’t shy away from acts of unspeakable brutality, he renders this savagery in a non-visceral way. We don’t so much experience the violence we see on screen—as we do in the director’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995)—rather we witness acts of barbarity and torture the way we might gaze at an exquisite painting depicting similar atrocities.

It takes a while to adjust to this style of storytelling, but it’s well worth settling into. As the picture progresses we get more and more emotionally invested in the principle protagonist Sebastião Rodrigues (played with great conviction by Garfield). The first half of the picture recalls the previous year’s Embrace of the Serpent by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra. As in that dream-like exploration of religious colonialism, it follows foreigners who travel to an ancient land on a Heart-of-Darkness-like mission to locate a disappeared man, or at least discover what happened to him. By the second half we suddenly find ourselves in a kind of POW camp movie, with echoes of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Unbroken (2014). But the harsh imprisonment Father Rodrigues undergoes is unlike any we’ve seen before in a narrative feature. His torturer is far more psychological and spiritual than physical. 

At this point we’re introduced to the inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, played by Issey Ogata in the film’s most surprising and memorable performance. Based on the actual Japanese commissioner who played a major role in the eradication of Christians from the country, Ogata creates a chillingly humorous depiction of Inquisitor Inoue. Through this character we, like Father Rodrigues, are forced to confront cultural, spiritual, and philosophical ideas. Even for viewers with little use for religion, these scenes transfix and color our entire experience of the movie. 

Silence, if not one of Scorsese’s greatest pictures, is one of the most mature works to date by this prolific director. Scorsese has constantly mined and aspired to the artistry of the great foreign filmmakers who came before him, but Silence is the first of his movies that feels like it truly belongs in the classical religious cinematic tradition of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Ingmar Bergman (whose own The Silence explores similar themes concerning the doubt that plagues many individuals of deep faith). 

Uncertainty and spiritual confusion are not the easiest emotional states to express cinematically. But Scorsese and his actors manage to show how these devout men cling to their beliefs despite their God's relentless silence in the face of unbearable human pain and suffering.  Garfield and Driver both deliver committed performances. Just looking at their emaciated bodies and anguished faces we can see that they have endured at least some modicum of suffering and sacrifice in order to properly embody these men. Still, the actors fail to completely convince us that they are Portuguese Jesuits. These are both major young movie stars who bring a lot of prior associations with them. It’s not that we see Spiderman and Kylo Ren every time we look at these two priests, but we can’t completely resign ourselves the way we might if the roles were played by unknowns or lesser-known actors of ethnicities closer to that of the characters. I’m usually the first person to defend celebrity casting as the only way major American films get made and seen. But in this case, the double-edged sword of stardom cuts too far on the side of distraction and distancing for Silence to fully transcend its earthly limitations.