For those of you who have read my blind spot reviews, you know that I’ve been slowly making my way through the filmography of Martin Scorcese. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull were my bookends for 2016 and my next review is going to be of Mean Streets so it feels kind of fitting that my first review of a new film of 2017 is of a Scorcese film, one that has been a passion project of Scorcese’s for 26 years, and it’s clear watching it why this film was such a passion project, the level of care Scorcese has for the film being evident in every frame.The film focuses on two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira, who denounced God after being tortured by the Japanese authorities. Whilst going through Japan to find Ferreira, Rodrigues and Garupe see the oppression faced by the ‘hidden Christians’ as a result of the Japanese authorities efforts to prevent the spread of Christianity, eventually running into the Inquisitor trying to find any Christians practising in Japan, their faith being questioned at every opportunity. The main success of Silence comes through the themes it raises regarding the nature of faith and Christianity and the questions the film raises as a result. Questions like whether the Japanese Christians are “true Christians” through their interpretation of the Bible to fit in Japanese culture, whether Japanese culture can allow for the spread of Christianity in the first place, how the Jesuits force their culture onto others but don’t try to understand Japanese culture and customs and, probably the most important question the film raises, is your faith worth others suffering and dying. It’s made clear throughout the film that numerous Christians are being killed, even after they have denounced God, as Rodrigues and Garupe have not denounced God, wanting to preserve their faith in public but seeing all the suffering their actions have caused and questioning why God is allowing the suffering, whether God is watching at all and struggles over their own feelings of selfishness and guilt over what they are seeing and causing.
The performances in the film help with presenting these themes. Andrew Garfield gives a brilliant performance as Rodrigues showing his devotion to his faith and the danger it gets him into in the first half, but it’s in the second half that Garfield shines as he descends into madness brought about by guilt, shame and his own feelings of suffering, comparing himself to Jesus. Adam Driver as Garupe meanwhile has a more subdued performance, allowing his faith to come through in a more subtle way along with him being more prone to impatience, fear and anger. Liam Neeson gets some brilliant moments in the time he’s in the film, although I won’t spoil them here. The highlights of the cast though are from the Japanese actors, although to get into a lot of detail as to why would spoil the film. Tadanobu Asano as the interpreter is brilliantly slimy and dismissive of the whole idea of Christianity, his taunting of Rodrigues being the icing on some very dark moments. Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue Masashige is a very creepy yet believable and relatable villain, bringing in the more interesting ethical dilemmas, Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi and Yoshi Oida as Ichizo gives very strong performances (again explaining why would spoil the film). For me, the strongest performance in the film was easily Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro. There’s so much pain and grief in Kubozuka’s face, easily understandable when we find out the backstory of Kichijiro and these feelings of shame, faith and penance are powerfully presented by Kubozuka through facial and body language.
On a technical level, this marks a more restrained style than we’re used to from Scorcese, but a style that works to the advantage of the film. The cinematography highlights the beauty and harshness of the countryside, adding to the hostility the Jesuit’s faced in Japan (even though it was filmed in Taiwan). There is also virtually no music in the film, most of the sounds in the film are of nature, which does an effective job of highlighting the pain that the Christians are forced to endure. Speaking of which, the violence in the film feels believable throughout, never excessive and never using too much blood, which in a way makes it more horrifying. The production design is excellent throughout, doing a great job of replicating 17th Century Japan and showing a great disparity between the villagers that the priests visit at the start of the film and the bare shelter they are given with the relative opulence of Nagasaki, the costume design going from filthy rags in the villages to a more refined wardrobe in Nagasaki further enforcing the disparity. The film also makes good use of traditional Christian iconography and through this raises the question of the importance of the symbols and whether or not having the symbols is a show of faith in and of itself.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Silence was such a passion project for Scorcese. This is a more toned down Scorcese than we’ve seen in some of his other recent films and this more restrained style works for the film, helping to raise interesting questions on the nature of faith and how much suffering is your faith worth, along with the whole idea of being abandoned by a force you’ve spent your life believing in and that force choosing to suffer alongside you. These are very powerful themes and only a director as talented as Martin Scorcese can present them in a way that feels believable and powerful. Silence is up there as one of Scorcese’s best films and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
My Rating: 5/5