I walked home in something of a daze. Attempting to process everything I had just seen in Martin Scorcese’s latest offering. His passion project of over twenty-five years. Back when Scorcese was putting the finishing touches to Goodfellas and setting out on his remake of Cape Fear he was beginning the journey to adapt a novel regarded as one of the finest of the twentieth century, Shusaku Endo’s Silence.
When talking about the film, Scorcese discussed how greater questions than simply making a film drove him to adapt such a philosophically ambivalent novel. It is the second time Scorcese has tackled the subject of religion, after 1988’s deeply controversial and utterly brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ.
This is also the second-time Endo’s novel has been adapted for cinema after 1971’s adaptation by Japanese director Masahiro Shinoda. Nevertheless, do not be put off by a film re-treading old territory – as we are in the era of repeated Hollywood reboots, remakes and reflogging a dead horse – not only is this an incredible film, but one that ranks with Scorcese’s very best.
This is very clearly a deeply personal work for Scorcese, as this film wrestles so many vast and complicated subjects without trying to deliver all the answers or pretending to have them in the first place. It is a staggering piece of work pieced together with painstaking care. Silence is a staggeringly epic piece of work. It doesn’t have the frenzied energy of Gangs of New York or Goodfellas, this is a film that takes it time, it puts you through the emotional wringer, not as a cheap commercial tearjerker but one of suffering hell while grappling with your own complex emotions on everything.
Scorcese and screenwriter Jay Cocks delves into human nature, politics and spirituality via colonialism and a clash of cultures.
The story follows two Jesuit Priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) who go to Japan during the period Kakure Kirishistan (Hidden Christians) to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has apparently recanted his faith. Both head idealistically into a situation they are entirely unprepared for.
Garfield delivers a career best performance as Father Rodrigues who grapples with whether his suffering at the hands of his Japanese captors is selfless or a matter of personal pride, as he compares himself to Christ.
Excellent performances are further delivered by the Japanese cast. Yosuke Kubozuke excels as peasant Kichijirio. A man who desperately struggles to reconcile his cowardice with his Christian faith, the look in his eyes throughout the film is a haunting one. One of a fundamentally broken and powerless witness to the horrors inflicted on those around him. Kubozuke steals the show at times as his traumatised man reflects that of the foreign priests.
The sweeping vistas and landscapes of Japan (actually Taiwan doubling as 17th century Japan) are stunning and only add to the country and culture of Japan itself being an additional character. Excising its will on everyone. Scorcese deftly handles the film’s delicate and ambivalent subject matter. This is not a one-sided censure of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate but allows you to understand the Japanese point of view despite the horrendous persecution against Christians (most of them Japanese peasants).
Scorcese wants us to think carefully about the consequences of trying to cack-handedly foist an alien culture onto another. Especially a culture as long established and advanced as Japan’s Buddhist based culture was in an era of being surrounded by colonial powers who were happy to use the Church as an insidious pacifying force. Rodrigues and Garrpe maybe idealistic but they are also presented as arrogant and blindly naïve.
Silence is punishing and thought-provoking piece of cinema and not one than will give you any spiritual enlightenment at the end. A beautiful and provocative piece of work. After the convoluted and problematic The Wolf of Wall Street this is Scorcese back at his best.