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“Silence” challenges viewers and asserts Scorsese’s master status

By Max Romprey

Martin Scorsese’s Silence, his 24th narrative feature film to date, bears more than a few signs of potential for being a disappointing flop.

Of the many potential red flags, of note are its prolonged development history, unmarketable religious content, and epic length and scale on a (by modern standards) shoestring budget. The latter-most red flag isn’t the most troubling thing in the world for Scorsese, who’s proven himself time and time again at being capable of creating films that stay engaging past the two-and-a-half-hour mark, but his reunion with Jay Cocks, with whom he previously wrote two of his most overreaching films (The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York) doesn’t bode well. You could at least go in knowing, as with all Scorsese movies, you’ll see a film worth talking about, if not a perfect film.

Well, I’m happy to say that you’ll have more than just an interesting conversation on the walk back to the car. Silence is a generous helping of cinematic gold from one of America’s all-time great filmmakers.

Following two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) on a mission in Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson) who has apparently denounced God, Silence is an exhausting meditation on faith, duty, and suffering that takes full advantage of Scorsese’s skill for first-person character study.

Adapted from a 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo that Scorsese has reportedly been attempting to adapt for 20-some-odd years, the film takes place during the 17th century where, during the Edo period of Japanese history, Christians, in addition to the missionaries that brought the faith to Japan, were persecuted and tortured by order of the ruling shogunate, or militaristic dictatorship.

While the leading trio of the cast is major headline material between two Star Wars films and an attempt at the Spider-Man mythos, Garfield carries the weight of the film mostly on his own, with the supporting Japanese actors playing more prominent roles than even Driver or Neeson.

Garfield has struggled to find a niche as an actor since his breakout in The Social Network, playing the financially shut-out Eduardo Saverin. A designed-by-committee duo of Spider-Man films didn’t allow him to do much other than play with a charming degree of smarm and wit, but here he aptly proves to be capable of leading a film of major emotional sophistication. His performance is largely internal, trusting you to fill in the blanks between trademark Scorsese first-person narration and brief, electrifying flashes of madness and contempt. Portraying abject terror and discomfort is made much easier when you’ve got sublime production design, makeup, and special effects as seen here, but Garfield ably pulls his weight along with the other aforementioned elements of the film.

Visually, the film stands up to Scorsese’s best, and has few of his trademark fingerprints. Eagle-eyed Scorsese fanatics may notice a few tell-tale zooms or pans that zero in on their subjects with a breakneck pace that is indicative of the director’s most stylized work, but the film in general is composed and edited with a classical and austere quality that rarely calls your attention from the focus of the characters. Scorsese’s respect for the material is evident in the way he and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Scorsese’s own previous opus The Wolf of Wall Street) let the images speak for themselves.

Scorsese’s radical stylistic qualities mostly come to a head in the film with inspired choices in sound design. An early moment that left me catching my breath into the next scene cuts all audio from the soundtrack as a Japanese convert takes hold of Garfield’s rosary shortly after the priests make landfall in the country. The man handles this image of Christ with such care and barely-hidden fervor as if he is finding clean water after many days alone in a desert. The sudden vacuum of sound the audience enters into in this scene allows volumes to be spoken about how dire the situation is, without ever having to resort to a character simply telling you that it’s dire. Another scene employs the use of remarkably low-quality audio that sounds as if it was recorded on the day of shooting, where a man is placed in the path an incoming tide. Waves crash into him repeatedly, and between them we hear his cries to God, crackly and clipping. It’s a unique and divisive choice that certainly breaks the mode of classicism the film strives for momentarily, but it does so in a way that makes this scene (perhaps brutal and cathartic in the hands of less inimitable directors) distant, cold, and underwhelming that only makes the ordeal more unsettling to see.

It’s not surprising to find that Silence isn’t resonating with everyone. Unsurprisingly, it was only nominated for Oscar recognition in one category (Cinematography), and a stacked one at that, in the company of four Best Picture nominees (a category in which it was snubbed). Scorsese and longtime-editor Thelma Schoonmaker have once again delivered a film with a two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime, and here the pace is deliberate, denying viewers the aesthetic and emotional immediacy of the director’s past efforts. Additionally, the thematic struggles of faith at hand in the story are not directly identifiable with all viewers. However, in the case of art that is as personally felt by the artist as this film is for Scorsese, the strength of the work is in how specific and particular it is. A film like Silence that speaks to the experience of a singular voice is few and far between in mainstream film of the 2010’s, a relic of the “New Hollywood” era that Scorsese came up in. The fact that it was made today, and that it came out as risky and challenging and demanding of patience as it did speaks to the continued strength of both Scorsese and the film industry at large. I suspect it is a film we will be continuing to talk about for a very long time.