Martin Scorsese is one of those filmmakers who’s reached such a status he can do whatever the hell he wants. And with good reason. It’s been in the works since 1990, but the Goodfellas mastermind finally ushered his adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence (previously adapted by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971), to the big screen. The result of this passion project is bloated, plodding, overindulgent, and 161 minutes of 17th century Japanese peasants being tortured so a white dude can learn a lesson about his faith. Though I’m not entirely certain he learns anything at all.
A lot of folks are praising this as a work of staggering genius full of fantastic performances, and as an experience unlike any other. It certainly is all of those things by degrees. Ultimately, however, as ambitious as it is, as pummeling as it is, in my opinion, Silence is a swing and a miss. Like the central characters, the intentions are great, but the execution is a frustrating, bordering on naïve meditation on the problems of religion, faith, missionary endeavors, grace, and regret.
The story follows two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), as they travel to Japan, where Christianity has been violently outlawed, in search of their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing. On the surface, it’s a simple story. Staying hidden, the two Jesuits search for clues about their lost mentor and minister to the faithful who conceal their true religion.
Opening on a scene of vicious torture, shrouded by plumes of steam billowing off of Japanese hot springs, Silence sets itself up as nightmarish, Apocalypse Now-style journey of destined to leave the protagonist grappling with the nature of his faith and humanity. That’s established right out of the gate. And it wants to do that. And other people seem to think that it accomplishes this. But I think they saw a different movie than I did.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a religious person at all (though I certainly have a soft spot for spiritual quest movies), and maybe a devout believer will have a different take than I do, but in the end, I found Silence profoundly pointless. With little to no propulsive force, the film repeatedly—and I mean with repetition driving points far into the ground—watches as others suffer for Rodrigues steadfast, inflexible devotion. Those in power crucify, drown, burn, belittle, and generally torment any hidden Christian they come across, usually while the Jesuit watches tearfully from the bushes. At least once the authorities capture him, the goal is to break him, to make him renounce his faith. But it takes hours to get there, and even then, their larger aim is little more than to scream “don’t be Christian or we’ll fucking kill you” at everyone they encounter.
In a movie populated almost exclusively with Asian actors it’s frustrating to see them reduced to one of two camps: cartoonish villain or as a mechanism to affect the white protagonist. The main antagonist (Issei Ogata) literally cackles most of the time he’s on screen. I swear, if he had a mustache, he’d stroke it and giggle like a Fu Manchu stereotype.
Every supporting player, all of their nobility, their faith, their bravery in the face of torture, adversity, and death, all of it exists to prop up the white guy. It’s about him, his feelings, his faith, how their suffering impacts him. It’s not about how faith or religion affect the people or nation. It’s not about foreign incursion or the inherent vanity and egoism of missionary work. One character, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka)—in a running bit that recurs, no joke, five damn times—almost presents a counter to Rodrigues’ immobility. He makes the wrong choices, but not necessarily for the wrong reasons—unfortunately, this winds up a tedious cyclical touchstone. Silence purports to be about so much, to be so deep, but there’s actually very little in the way of conviction.
Silence is already proving divisive. Some people call it complex, I call it empty. Some people see it as the peak of Scorsese’s spiritual cinematic quest—he’s said his whole life has been movies and religion, nothing else—while what I saw feels very much like someone stalled out in a search. I can’t speak to the man’s intentions or aims, but for all the philosophical pondering, there’s no discernable momentum. Some were rapt, I was bored and exhausted, and not in the good, emotionally draining way (I yawned throughout).
In Scorsese’s hands, working once again with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, every frame is elaborate and perfect in that effortless way only a master craftsman can pull off. Using only ambient light—or at least the appearance of only ambient light—creates such a naturalistic feel that it fades entirely into the background. It’s easy to ignore or gloss over how marvelous each shot actually is. Which is itself a remarkable feat.
Silence wants to challenge the audience. Everything element is designed to keep the viewer away, but the biggest challenge I found was sitting still for that long. An almost total lack of score creates further remove. I get the intent of this choice: to trust the audience to find their way with a dearth of artificial signposts, to rely solely on Andrew Garfield’s pained expression—there’s so much tormented Garfield face. At the same time, however, the result is often directionless bobbing and the movie feels adrift and even lost.
Every choice Scorsese makes is methodical and deliberate, but I’m never sure of the underlying why. Silence travels curious and intentional paths, but like the picture as a whole, I’m left to wonder about the point. I want there to be a point, this is the kind movie that desperately screams, “There’s a point.” No matter where I look, I simply don’t see one anywhere.
And as much as every frame is a careful, premeditated composition, and as long as particular scenes—especially those of religious ritual—drag on, Silence reaches a certain narrative point only to rush towards the conclusion. Like Scorsese was writing a paper on a deadline, putting the utmost care into every word choice, then realized he had to dash out the last page to beat the clock. The pace speeds up and skips through years, with forced inserted voiceover from a heretofore unknown character.
Overall, the word I keep coming back to to describe Silence is “almost.” It’s almost great, it almost digs into the meat of faith and religion and spirituality like it wants to—one moment in particular, where Rodrigues and Japanese official (Tadanobu Asano) almost have an actual exchange about Christianity and Buddhism, comes perilously close. It’s almost a poignant moment. They almost get there. Almost.
Instead, Silence feels like throwing stones in a deserted cathedral. Noise and clatter echo and reverberate off the walls, but in the end all we’re left with is silence, an empty exercise in spiritual posturing.