Running time: 2hrs 41min
Starring: Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata
Director: Martin Scorsese
For many decades, the struggle, and sometimes the glory, of religious belief has been a continuing preoccupation for numerous major film directors.
However, apart from faith-based film-making for a target audience, from which no known auteurs have yet emerged, religion as a recurring and serious topic has virtually disappeared from the American screen, except in certain works by Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese.
In the long-gestating Silence, the latter has arguably made his most focused and searching exploration of the subject that has been both an explicit and implicit driving force behind many of his films. Not all dream projects turn out well, but this one comes within shouting distance.
It’s also resolutely focused on its central theme, creating an unvarying dramatic temperature and tone that is only relieved somewhat in the second half. The work’s grim nature and imposing length will probably keep the masses away.
Based on Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed 1966 novel, Scorsese’s film is almost exclusively concerned with the issue reflected by the book’s title – that is, God’s deafening, soul-churning, doubt-and-madness producing silence in the face of both endless human suffering and the devout’s unceasing efforts to receive some form of divine guidance as regards their earthly endeavours.
To explore this weighty, endlessly ponderable conundrum, Endo, a Japanese Catholic, used the real history of Japan’s Edict of Expulsion of 1614, designed to ban and eradicate Christianity from its islands, a policy pursued mercilessly. Into the perilous fray, in 1643, sneak two young Portuguese Jesuit priests who are mainly aiming to track down the eminent Father Cristavao Ferreira, a revered pioneering priest in Japan who has reportedly renounced his faith and of late has gone silent.
The brave and foolhardy army of two consists of Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who embark from a positively poisonous-looking Macao to be dumped off the perilous Japanese coast. They happen upon a forlorn Christian cult that takes them in, and among them is a bedraggled interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) able to brief them on the dire circumstances now facing those who continue to follow a foreign deity in Nippon.
Soaked as it is in squalor and the seeming hopelessness of the priests’ journey, the film has some trouble achieving lift-off.
At length, Sebastaio and Francisco come to a parting of the ways, leaving the former to forge ahead alone. The solo explorer comes upon another Christian enclave in a remote fishing village, but is soon betrayed, arrested and jailed.
It all leads to a grimly riveting encounter between the young priest and none other than the long-lost Father Cristavao (Liam Neeson), who lays it all on the table about how he dealt with the same mighty challenge facing Sebastiao now and the prospects for their religion in Japan.
Ultimately, despite the bumpiness of the initial stretch and the intense but narrow conception of the leading roles, Silence gets to where it wants to go, which is to stand as Scorsese’s own reckoning with the religion he was raised in and takes seriously, and which has arguably fuelled so much of the inner turmoil and angst that has marked much of his work; this can rightly be regarded as a considerable feat.
The Independent on Saturday