Director Martin Scorsese
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Released 1st January 2017
Starts to the cinematic New Year don’t get more appetising than the prospect of a new film from Martin Scorsese – especially when they’re coupled with a retrospective. The latter runs at the BFI during January and February, with a newly restored version of GoodFellas as its crowning glory. As for the new movie, it’s a project that Scorsese has been trying to get off the ground more or less since GoodFellas was released.
He and screenwriter Jay Cocks put together a first draft of Silence in the early 90s, the idea being that it would be made after Gangs Of New York, which was released in 2002. Funding wasn’t forthcoming, so he made The Aviator instead. But he kept trying, and trying, with various cast changes along the way. Based on the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, it’s the story of two 17th century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who go in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). He’s in Japan but is lost to the Church because it’s a country where their religion is outlawed. Christians are savagely persecuted and executed if they refuse to apostatize, ie abandon their faith, and publicly demonstrate it. Their quest will be full of dangers, both physical and spiritual.
This isn’t the first time that Scorsese has tackled the subject of religion and the film was given its premiere at The Vatican, a notable achievement in its own right. Here, the themes are the strength and endurance of faith, martyrdom even, with the two young priests having their faith tested beyond belief, as well as seeing others tested in an equally extreme way. For the Japanese, Christianity is an irrelevance: they have no use for it because, as the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) observes, they have a religion that suits them quite nicely thank you, and that religion is Bhuddism.
The film not only shows faith put to the most extreme test, but also asks whether it can be totally obliterated once it’s taken hold. Despite the all-pervading fear among the Japanese Christian community, the priests discover it refuses to be snuffed out, with villagers living in extreme poverty but resolutely holding on to their beliefs. They are tested in the same way as the priests but, as peasants, they are more expendable and endure prolonged torture, as well as gruesome ends. Most agonising of all is the sight of the emaciated Father Garrpe (Driver) trying to prevent the deliberate drowning of four villagers. They’ve already renounced their faith but that’s not enough for The Inquisitor, who wants the young priest to apostatize as well. He won’t.
If you’re wondering about the title, it refers to God’s silence, the one that the priests all believed He was keeping throughout their suffering. Although, as Rodrigues eventually realises, He was stood next to him all the time and felt every lash, every humiliation. A God, perhaps, that’s as secretive as His followers, although it begs the question as to whether it’s a legitimate way of professing a faith, especially such as Christianity with its evangelical tradition.
The film boasts some truly impressive performances. Andrew Garfield continues his return to form since the SpiderMan debacle and is the focus of the second half of the film. As his beliefs are stretched to the limit, he borders on madness but when he eventually meets Ferreira, he’s the only one who can truly understand him. If anything, we don’t see enough of Adam Driver, who brings his customary intensity to a role that comes close to breaking your heart.
Silence has the contemplative tone of a film made by a reflective older man. Powerful, emotionally shattering at times, it moves at a slow, steady pace, but never drags. Nor does it offer any answers to its questions. Because each person watching it will respond in a different way.
Silence is released on Sunday, 1st January 2017 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 5th January 2017.