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Directed by Martin Scorsese
Running time 161 minutes
Synopsis: On the mid-1600s two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travel to Japan in an attempt to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) who appears to have disappeared in an anti-Christian pogrom.
If from Martin Scorsese’s new film you were hoping for a religiously-infused adventure drama like The Mission (1986) you can forget about it. Although Dante Ferretti’s production design is meticulous with Scorsese and his team having clearly studied Japanese samurai-era movies closely and Rodrigo Prieto’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is splendid, the film is dramatically flat, even soporific. The best thing that one can say about it is that it is not as ill-judged as the director’s 1988 foray into Catholic self-mortification, The Last Temptation of Christ (although echoing one of that film’s problems, we can’t help but wonder how it is that all the Japanese characters can more or less speak and understand Portugese, which we can all understand because everyone is in fact speaking English)
As TLTOC was based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel so Silence is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō which Scorsese has been trying to bring to the big screen for nearly 30 years (indicative of the long road the film has travelled, it has over 30 credited producers of one stripe or another). Both works explore the issue of faith and doubt, a subject which clearly means a lot to Scorsese who had at one time considered becoming a priest. Unless one has a similar personal investment his unnecessarily long treatment of the subject is a good deal less than compelling.
Partly this is due to the dramatically underwhelming script which is credited to Scorsese with Jay Cocks who wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York (2002), a film which, oddly enough, with its sadistic tendencies has a certain resonance here. It is only late in proceedings that the film manages to spark into life when Liam Neeson’s apostate priest reappears (as we knew he would) and engages Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues in theological debate while the Japanese “chief inquisitor” (Issey Ogata) tortures Christians in front of him. Until that time we are subjected to the two young missionaries banging on about assorted religious matters as a seemingly-endless supply of tatterdemalion, mud-spattered Christian Japanese peasants bleat about having their confession heard. As the two young men are piously in agreement with each other, when Adam Driver’s Father Garupe effectively departs from the narrative it makes little difference to the film’s dynamic, or better put, lack of it.
This deficiency is exacerbated by the casting of Andrew Garfield. His fine Oscar-nominated man-of-God performance in the WWII drama, Hacksaw Ridge, notwithstanding, he is unconvincing here with there being little sense of connection between his character and the horrors that he is experiencing as the curiously fruity chief inquisitor torments him with the now well-established Japanese flair for physical cruelty. Given that Father Rodrigues bears the burden of being the film's thematic focal point, it leaves a big hole in proceedings.
Scorsese is without doubt one of America’s greatest living genre directors but, as is so often the case, it would seem that the issues he most wants to address are the ones he is least successful with. Although perhaps closest to his heart Silence is destined to be relegated to the "also ran" section of his catalogue.