Forgive me, Father. I have a confession to make: Never again in my life do I want to watch Silence.
Adapted from Shūsaku Endō’s fictional novel of the same name, Martin Scorsese’s latest film is the furthest thing from an easy watch and represents a grand departure from 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street. Gone are the quirky narrations and oozing machismo of meat-and-potato works like Goodfellas, Casino, the aforementioned Wolf; so too is the hopefulness of spirited fare like Hugo or Kundun. Instead Silence finds Scorsese exploring a crisis of faith, circling all the way back to 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. And while Silence can’t be easily dismissed (or forgotten), it’s a laborious affair that drags far too often. What begins as an intensely visceral experience slowly bends under its own heaviness before collapsing in the third act, a casualty of its own bloated run-time.
Set amid the political upheaval of seventeenth century Japan, the film follows Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) in search of his apotheosized mentor. Along the way, Rodrigues comes into direct conflict with a government hell-bent on outlawing Christianity. Rodrigues and his colleague (Father Garupe, Adam Driver) are forced to confront their faith as the sad realities of war-torn Japan take hold.
Silence doesn’t trade in ambiguities. Scorsese’s film feels like a conduit to reaffirming one’s own faith in the midst of, well, silence. But what of those lacking the kind of faith Scorsese and these characters believe in? It’s in this schism that Silence becomes two different movies for two very different kinds of people. This is a film made for believers. For non-believers such as myself, mileage may vary. That’s because Silence’s run-time consists of a beginning, an end, and a whole lot of torture in between. Nobody is spared. Even Kylo Ren gets tortured in Silence. Kylo Ren. And once the torturing starts, the film enters a dull, repetitive rut where characters are captured, ordered to renounce their faith, then tortured. This sequence of events loosely repeats itself ad nauseam throughout the meat of the film.
Faith is a touchy subject. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s beliefs, nor do I want to trivialize the all-too-real horrors that real-life Christians faced in Japan during this tumultuous period. But Rodrigues’ incursion (speaking solely about its portrayal here, not its intent) is either for everything or nothing. And if you fall on the side of nothing then Rodrigues comes off as a brazenly ignorant foreigner getting dozens of villagers needlessly killed as he traverses a land he doesn’t understand. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s merely one interpretation, though for me it made a hard watch even more difficult. Are these peoples’ lives worth the price of one man’s enlightenment? It hardly comes off as righteous on screen, even if Silence frames it as such.
All of this to say there are moments in Silence that rise above its dilemmas. Scorsese has assembled a game cast worthy of the praise being heaped upon them. This is no more evident than in Garfield’s scenes opposite Issey Ogata (playing what amounts to Silence’s antagonist). Ogata, a comedian in his native Japan, plays Inoue Masashige as a misguided elder statesman, trying to pull a beleaguered Garfield to his side of the argument. These scenes, while still immensely weighty in context, offer some much-needed playfulness to a very dour film. Driver, looking frailer than Garfield somehow, is underutilized throughout. Nevertheless, he and Liam Neeson make the most of their limited screen time.
With award-worthy cinematography (the lush evergreen forests of Taiwan serving as stand-in for Japan) and a powerhouse cast, Silence very much dresses the part of a contender. Scorsese uses a dark moment in history to explore the very nature of faith and the underlying doubt some believers face. To that end Silence succeeds as an artistic endeavor but fails as an emotionally gripping film; it‘s more likely to test viewers’ patience than their faith. Because of this, Silence ends up being an experience I appreciated more than I actually liked. Still, I can’t imagine having the willpower to endure it a second time.