This story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in order to find out what happened to their former master and bring him back home both literally and spiritually has a long history. Silence is originally a novel written by Shusaku Endo in 1966 and was given to Scorsese as a gift when he had finished filming The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. One year later Scorsese was asked by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to play Vincent Van Gogh in Dreams, and Scorsese decided to read the novel while he has working in Japan. The intellectual outsider’s take on the Catholic religion appealed tremendously to Scorcese and he knew he wanted to make a film out of it but other contracts and projects kept getting in the way until he had finished The Wolf of Wall Street. Now his passion project of close to thirty years is finally getting a general release and the world gets to see a Scorsese piece focusing on his passion other than New York, his Catholic faith.
The reason Scorsese has become such a legend of film making is his incredible eye for setting up intricate camera shots. He’s a master at setting up both moods and story using methods which are anything but “by the book” while also often incorporating many pieces. In Silence, Scorsese uses simpler, though no less beautiful, methods than he normally does, eschewing the wonder of intricacy for the starkness of simplicity. We see more shots from one angle held for a long time than is normal, and with edits spaced far between. While due to the sets and set pieces no one could ever confuse Silence with a stage play, the visual work on display here has a lot in common with one worrying more about facial expressions and dialogue for extended periods of time than on scenery and action.
Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the major roles of the two priests on the mission in Japan, with Andrew Garfield being the true focal character, and both really get a chance to show their acting chops here. Their characters immediately realize that they may have gotten themselves in far over their heads in a situation where not only is their very existence illegal, but they don’t understand a thing about the people they want to help. Both excellently express their feelings of helplessness, frustration, fear, and bewilderment while still maintaining individual identities. The rest of the cast aside from Liam Neeson are various Japanese peasants or members of the Japanese Inquisition, and again, the acting on display is phenomenal, possibly even better than that of our main characters. The Japanese in the film not only have to present complicated relationships to the priests and to the Catholic religion, but they have to do it using a very broken English, but not so broken that it is overly difficult to understand. Issei Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue gave a particularly impressive performance having to be intimidating, charming, vicious, and ultimately the focus of Silence‘s deep and somewhat astonishing themes about culture and religion, while still having a very thick accent and limited English vocabulary.
In the screenplay which gives us these astonishing themes, we have quite an excellent adaptation, though I can’t speak to how accurate it is since I haven’t read the novel. The story itself, and this is the one rather large weakness of the film, is very slow paced. There is little action in Silence‘s 2 hour and 41 minute running time, and even the tension is spread out over long intervals interspersed with conversations on religion and philosophy as well as extended camera shots of the Japanese landscape and its denizens. I found, in fact, that the majority of the interest and entertainment to be had from Silence is not during the period you are actually watching the film, but in the hours and days afterward when you are letting what you saw play out in your head and you get a chance to interpret and ponder everything contained in the film. This is a film that demands a second viewing to get from it everything you can, the first viewing really just being little more than a preparation for the true experience.
As to those themes themselves, I can’t say I am certain I caught everything in one viewing, but Scorsese has a lot to say about the nature of religion in relation to the culture it has permeated. A Christian in Europe and a Christian in Japan are not only limited in communication, but they can be said to be following an altogether different religion with only the most surface and dogmatic elements of the religion being the same. How it inspires and affects its followers, and even what the followers perceive themselves to be worshiping can be radically different, and thus the effect the religion has on the culture of a given region can also be radically different. It’s this observation which gives Silence its power, and which also make it an odd companion piece to Arrival released earlier in the year. Silence also has strong similarities to the book and television miniseries Shogun in its portrayal of Europeans impacting and causing upheaval in Japanese society.
Final recommendation: Silence is not a film for everyone. While it is intensely thoughtful and has as deep a message as one can hope for in cinema, it’s plodding pace and nearly meditative style means that the rewards you get from the film are gained after you have left the theater and find yourself thinking about it, not in the moment. If you are ready for something methodical and philosophical, however, Silence not only delivers on those fronts, but can also be beautiful and has some fantastic acting on display, as well.