This review was previously published in The National.
WE don’t get very many films like this. That’s because it could only have been made by a filmmaker of Martin Scorsese’s calibre and experience, perhaps even by no one else but the man himself.
His 24th feature – in a career that has included such diverse films as Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Aviator – is a hugely ambitious, unabashedly gruelling and epic yet intensely up-close-and-personal meditation on the nature of faith and the adherence thereof.
Scorsese’s momentous adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s celebrated 1966 novel has been long-gestating; it’s been in various stages of development since not long after he made the out-there religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ.
It starts off as a search and rescue mission as two 17th century Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), travel from Portugal to Japan in search of their friend and mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has gone missing while spreading the word of Christianity in a land that couldn’t be more different to their own.
“The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger,” they are warned. At first this seems untrue for them, as they arrive with greetings of joy from villagers who have been practising Catholicism in secret.
But soon the Japanese lords arrive who make it a mission of their own – with all the might behind them of an established Japan that’s described as a swamp where nothing grows – to utterly and irrevocably snuff out the spreading of Catholicism throughout the nation. This includes burning alive, beheading, bleeding out and drowning anyone who threatens to let it take root.
Their specific focus is to get Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe to commit apostasy – the process of renouncing their faith. The more the priests stick to and try to further spread their beliefs, the worse it is for the locals – “The price for your glory is their suffering,” they are bluntly told by the supercilious Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata).
Scorsese might be most famous for making an impact with mobsters but lest we forget that in whatever mould he works – whether it’s satirical black comedy like The King of Comedy, creepy mystery like Shutter Island or historical adventure like Hugo – he brings a resolute ambition and eye for striking imagery that few other Western filmmakers can match.
Silence feels like the culmination of his aesthetically astute career and a means for the director to push his own boundaries with a visually bold and thematically affecting piece of cinema informed by his own work and those he – the obsessed cinephile and lapsed Catholic – admires.
The visual palette feels passionately steeped in influence by the work of Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa, notably with an opening shot that strongly evokes samurai classic The Hidden Fortress as figures in native garb appear like ghosts out of the mountaintop mist.
On the other hand, the way he approaches the intimate moments of spiritual examination brings to mind the work of austere European filmmakers like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. But far from being a cheap imitation, it feels like a respectful concoction of cinematic treasures of the past that only Scorsese could blend.
It’s undoubtedly a challenging watch that requires patience and engagement from its audience. It comes in at a pretty hefty 161 minutes and deals with some truly lofty and thought-provoking questions, not least does the eponymous state disprove the existence of God or does unwavering faith in spite of it merely amplify him?
From its opening to its closing image, it presents an unforgettable experience, one that demands to be submitted to, and contemplated long after the credits roll. The quiet power of it is positively deafening.