SILENCE has been a passion project for Scorsese for almost 30-years and it's production has been in a perpetual state of “on/off” for most of that time. With over a decade worth re-writes he and co-writer Jay Cocks finally settled on a script that they felt did justice to the iconic Japanese novel, and with an ambitious production he set about making one of his most expressive and provocative film in years.
Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Jesuit priests in the 16th century who travel to Japan to find their former mentor (played by Liam Neeson) who has disappeared and is rumoured to have renounced God. Upon arrival they encounter a small community of Japanese Christians who live in secrecy. With a band of Shogun Samurai on their trail seeking to expunge Christianity from Japan, the priests along with the community journey to an island where more God-fearing people live in hiding. The faithful regard the Priests arrival with awe and devotion, clutching to every word they say and desperately seeking direction. When the Shogunate arrive they are forced to renounce their faith, after which they may walk free, otherwise suffer a torturous death. From there the story shifts to Nagasaki where the focus zeros in on Garfield's character, following his trials and tribulations in a country where his own faith if outlawed.
Scorsese was all prepared for SILENCE by not only developing it for 3-decades but by also having directed two thematically-related films. His controversial 1988 film THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was religiously divisive and afforded him the precedent for tackling religiously-weighted material, while his 1997 film KUNDUN proved his capability in dealing with traditional cultural aesthetics. Both of those films also played on my mind throughout the film, as well as Roland Joffe's incredible 1986 film THE MISSION (also featuring Liam Neeson). And when you add the Kurosawa reference, the result – in my mind – is a heavily influenced period drama that benefits from its predecessors while presenting a thoroughly absorbing narrative.
The production design of the film is incredible and celebrated cinematographer Rodgigo Preieto has captured the landscape and environment brilliantly. From sweeping wide shots to invasive chose ups, his style is always profound. He puts beauty into every shot, even while the film's most abhorrent situations are unfolding. Who would have thought that watching men slowly drown to death could be so exhilarating (it's the stuff good cinema is made of)? The cast is also great with
Adam Driver giving an adequate performance that is hugely overshadowed by Andrew Garfield's exceptional lead performance. He occupies 99% of the screen-time and holds the viewer's attention through it all. His turn as the priest with unshakeable faith is fantastic, and there's no doubt in my mind that he is becoming one of the foremost actors of his generation... Liam Neeson is also good, although his role is little more than an extended cameo and he basically plays to type. The Japanese cast are phenomenal and give the film its added layer of authenticity and conviction.
The problem with SILENCE is it's duration. At 161-minutes it outstays its welcome by at least 40-minutes, and a tighter running time would have been to its advantage. With the story being rather simplistic and straight forward, there is no reason for it to be as long as it is. That's not to say that it's a boring film - to the contrary - but it would have been even more engaging at a more modest length.
I guess with Scorsese having this film in his life for 30-years there was an inevitable self-indulgence at play, and perhaps he felt obligated to adapt at much of the original novel as possible. There is so much magnificence to what he has created that sacrificing some of it may have been impossible for him to do... who knows? Regardless of this one obvious failing, the film is nevertheless a cinematic experience that deserves to be seen on the big screen. If you're a cinefile and share my love for the films of Kurosawa, then you will definitely take away a lot more than other people.
More importantly, SILENCE is a welcome reminder that good cinema isn't all about big explosions and super heroes. It is a throwback to a time when films like this outnumbered the tosh, and dominated the market. It's a standard that Hollywood desperately needs to strive for more often.