“Silence” is a film legendary director Martin Scorsese has been trying to get made since he read the book in 1989. In that sense, it is one of his greatest achievements as well as one of his most personal. It is easy to get swallowed by the background of the film; luckily it is an accomplishment in its own right. It feels like a film from a bygone era, reminiscent of a painting made by Van Gogh in the prime of his technique. It is a slow burn, meditative focus on a person’s faith, and through this cipher, Scorsese’s.
In the 1600s, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are sent to Japan to look for Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have become an apostate. The film follows how Japanese Christians were treated at the time, and meditates on why people might do something or believe a certain way when the odds are completely against them and they are faced with death if they get caught. “Silence” is fundamentally a film about devotion and humanity’s breaking point, and what they do when that happens.
Garfield’s turn is the standout. He has the look of a bona fide star here, comparable to Peter O’Toole or John Hurt. He commands the screen with a passionate gaze. Driver and Neeson also deliver reliable work, although their parts are comparably truncated.
The most fascinating performance and character in the movie has to be Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, who acts as a guide to Rodrigues and Garupe. Kichijiro proves to be untrustworthy, continually betraying them, but there is a hidden depth both to his character and Kubozuka’s acting. Kichijiro wants to have a strong faith and live a life that he sees as free of sin, but he is tormented by an oppressive government and is forced into what he sees as compromise for the sake of survival. Kubozuka is brilliant, echoing Shakespeare.
It’s easy to look at “Silence” and wonder ‘what does it mean?’ The film’s slow pace encourages this. The answer is– there are no answers. Rodrigues is forced to find faith when he sees that faith has left him, and many of the supporting characters are willing to lay down their lives for what they believe will be a faith that benefits the world. The film offers no easy answers, and argues that faith cannot come without great sacrifice.
“Silence” is also about Scorsese’s own grappling with faith. He initially wanted to become a priest before delving into film, and after he started making movies he went through dark episodes, such as cocaine addiction. Rodrigues is his avatar.
“Silence” is a difficult, challenging film to engage with. It is slow and will demand multiple viewings. As a portrayal of faith under great duress and as an exploration of Scorsese as an artist, it is one of the most fascinating films of recent years and maybe even the most personal work of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Strongly recommended.