At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Silence “2016”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto/ Runtime: 161 minutes

I feel I should warn you movie goers that Silence may truly be a monumental achievement of a film, but it is also a punishing film as well. I say this because here is a film that will put you through absolute and total hell with no promise of enlightenment in sight. Instead Silence chooses to only give you a set of questions as well as a collection of propositions, sensations and experiences. Indeed this is also a film that has been ruminating in film legend Martin Scorsese’s head for over 25 years now and with such an investment, and the film’s runtime clocking in at an absolutely epic 161 minute runtime there were so many chances that had this film been made by the hands of a more tempestuous filmmaker it, and the audience in the process, could have suffered absolutely horribly beyond any and all imagining. So based off of that I can honestly say that it speaks volumes about the mastery of Marty and his filmmaking touch that he is able to make Silence unfold in a patient yet rhythmic style that is absolutely perfectly suited to the story being told at hand. Thus by doing so Scorsese has managed to create a mesmeric séance of a film that’s undoubtedly challenging, even verging on being a slog in places, yet at the same time Silence is precisely epic, and a true reminder that there are many tools to be found in Martin Scorsese’s tool kit.

The plot is as follows: Set in the 17th century, Silence follows two Jesuit priests by the names of Sebastiano Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) as they decide to make a journey to Japan to try and locate their old teacher Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is believed to have renounced his faith and for all intents and purposes committed apostasy. Unfortunately Japan has decided to outlaw Christianity meaning that the pair have to remain hidden from the local government and while they provide their services to the local secret Christians, the duo begin their long trek to locate Ferreira only to find themselves walking into a nightmarish world beyond anything they could have ever imagined…

Now I feel it is safe to say that Silence is as far away from a lot of Scorsese’s usual films as it gets as here is a film that doesn’t need to scream for attention to get its points across. Instead the film chooses to meditate, hum, and live and thrive more off of the expressions and pain and anguish that simmer in its cast of characters. So with such nuanced portrayals being an absolute necessity, Scorsese has managed to assemble a stunning ensemble to play out his tale as we get a gaunt yet fantastic Adam Driver who manages to channel his inner St. Peter and who also manages to bring an understandable nerve and tension to the film as Garupe, and who really truly does make for a worthy foil to Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues in their scenes together. Meanwhile Liam Neeson does some of his best dramatic work in a while as he provides for a worthy measurement of just how far a man could turn from his faith as Ferreira, Yosuke Kubzuka is devilishly evasive as Kichiiro, Shinya Tusamoto is rousingly stoic and honorable as the defiant Mokichi, and Issey Ogata does a fantastic job of showcasing a true Machiavellianesque calm as well as simple yet chilling workmanlike demeanor in his daily torturing of the Christians as Inquisitor Inoue Masashige.

At the end of the day however it is Andrew Garfield who is not only the film’s beating heart but also our as audience members’ eyes and ears through this labyrinthine tale as well and while Rodrigues is just as earnest as Eduardo Saverin (The Social Network), Peter Parker (Amazing Spider-Man), or even Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge), he’s tested, and punished much more extremely than any of those men could ever dream of and it is these qualities that manage to bring out not only a rage, but an intensity, a sorrow, a regret, and even some anguish in Garfield that he manages to then showcase in an absolutely phenomenal fashion, due in no small part to the fact that he is simply able to get these emotions across without them impeding or even overwhelming the rest of his performance.

Now I have read in a few places that Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Jay Cocks have been accused by some of my more professional colleagues of glorifying the European missionaries, or at least not examining them in a critical enough way, but if we’re being honest here ladies and gentlemen I truly didn’t get that out of this film at all. In fact, one of the things that I can honestly say impresses me the most about this film is the care that it meticulously devotes to understanding the position of the Japanese authorities at that particular time when it came to Western religion(s) without once condoning or encouraging them or their methods. In fact the film even actually lets a major character explain the official 17th century Japanese point-of-view on Western religion as he, and the rest of the Japanese government, not only consider it a corrupting influence on Japanese culture, but that they also have serious doubts and reservations that a religion like Christianity could ever truly take root in the “swamp” that is their home country of Japan. Indeed it is brilliant work such as this that manages to showcase echoes of yet another recurring Scorsese fascination which is the self-preservation instinct of the tribe. A philosophy which states that while a tribe may tolerate rebellion, heresy or external threats up to a point it is after that point is not only crossed, but completely shattered that the tribe will quite often crack down mercilessly in what the tribe will refer to as their attempts to “restore balance” to the world they live in.

Now Scorsese’s respectful distance from this fray only just serves to make the suffering you witness unfold on screen more unbearable than it would be if he showed every atrocity in close-up to the point that it’s unsettling because it truly fuses the point-of-view of God and the point-of-view of the audience into one perspective. Thus you as an audience member will find yourself completely paralyzed because although you want the movie to step in and stop the suffering, you find yourself realizing that the suffering must continue because we’re watching men of God being tested and no matter how hard they try they never will be able entirely wrap their minds around the purpose of the test God is putting them through. Indeed when they do grapple with it, they not only worry that they’ve arrived at the wrong conclusion or that they’ve missed the point, but that quite possibly and even more frightening for them, that they’re not faithful enough or smart enough to understand why this horror exists in the first place. Indeed this is not the sort of film you “like” or “don’t like.” Instead this is a film that you experience and then find yourself having to live with afterwards. Indeed this is truly nothing new for Scorsese seeing as he has been here before, in one sense or another—not just in straightforwardly theological dramas such as “Kundun” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but in his crime pictures and thrillers as well and yet unlike all of those earlier pictures that he has made in his decades-long career “Silence” manages to foreground such things in the manner of a parable that we ultimately learn was never intended to lead us as viewers to any single realization, but rather to stimulate our thoughts and our emotions instead.

All in all while Silence doesn’t challenge Scorsese’s best works, and its elongated approach, meditation related to faith, and exploration of what ultimately turn out to be some truly unanswerable questions won’t be for everyone. Yet this film at the end of the day is still an absolutely stark, dark, and absolutely thought-provokingly effort from a man who will easily go down as having one of the finest directorial careers in the history of cinema, and at the same time also serves as proof that even when he changes pace and his usual genre, Martin Scorsese is still just as formidable as ever. On a scale of 1-5 I give Silence a solid 4 out of 5.