The opening shots of Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence echo the great Akira Kurosawa in their mastery of framing and composition. Grey fog drifts before our eyes as a procession makes its way across a lonely hilltop in a scene reminiscent of Kagemusha. But Kurosawa’s films were marked by an all-inclusive universality. A shame, then, that Scorsese’s film seems to speak only to the faithful, and excludes those of a more, shall we say, rational mindset.
It is the Seventeenth Century, and Europe is beginning its tumultuous relationship with Japan. During this time, Jesuit missionaries and their native converts face persecution, and many are tortured and forced into apostasy. News of one such deconversion, that of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), reaches Portugal and two of Ferreira’s former pupils, Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). Refusing to believe their mentor could abandon his faith, the two priests set sail for Japan.
While not quite chalk and cheese, Rodrigues and Garrpe are very different characters. Driver’s Garrpe is a model priest; gentle, caring, a true shepherd. Garfield’s Rodrigues, on the other hand, appears to suffer delusions of grandeur from very early on. He sees Jesus’ face wherever he looks, even in his own reflection. In a running voice over he continually compares himself and his struggles to those of Christ. In short, he has something of a Messiah complex.
Jesus’ face peering up out of a river at Andrew Garfield is one of very few stylistic flourishes on offer here. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shoot Silence with a grounded eye and a muted colour palette. There is what you might call an anti-flourish, however. The score, by relative newcomers Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge, is a subdued, often barely audible affair. The music drifts in the background of the film, only making itself known through a quietly monotonous drumbeat, or the susurrant whisper of a wind instrument.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are soon separated, and that is when Silence begins to falter. From this point we focus largely on Rodrigues, and I’m sorry to say that Garfield just does not have the screen presence to carry the film. It is an odd casting choice, because had the roles been reversed, I believe that Driver would have made a far more compelling Rodrigues. Perhaps Garfield just looks more Christlike.
That is not to say that the performances are bad. Garfield has come a long way from a third-rate Spider-Man and does impress here. Neeson is, of course, eminently watchable, oozing authority and uncertainty in equal measure. But it is the Japanese cast who steal the show, especially Issei Ogata as a Japanese inquisitor. He is shrewdly slimy, just a little camp, and at one point partakes of a marvellous piece of physical acting.
Ogata’s inquisitor is one of several characters with whom Rodrigues engages in philosophical discussions. These range from comparing and contrasting Christianity and Buddhism, to why the Church never found a foothold in Japan, and they form the real meat of the film. It is frustrating, then, that they are liberally spaced throughout a second act that comprises mostly of Garfield stumbling around, failing to capture the audience.
Things do pick up in the third act when Neeson’s Ferreira, who disappears early on, decides to reappear. Here is where we see Rodrigues’ Messianic pride square off against Ferreira’s pragmatic apostasy. There are scenes of torture here, as there are throughout the whole film. Don’t worry, this is not the ecclesiastical torture porn of The Passion of the Christ. Prieto’s camera does not linger on the violence, but neither does it shy away from it. It just presents it.
I must admit to feeling a little lost in Silence’s more devotional aspects. This is most certainly a devotional film, and as an atheist I really could not engage with the issues of faith and belief. The thing is, I enjoyed Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, so I have to conclude that the fault is with Silence and not with me. The film is far too enamoured of the specifics of its place and time and does nothing to give its broader themes any kind of universality.
Silence has been a real passion project for Scorsese, a film he has been developing for over 25 years. It is a labour of love that is at times more laborious than loving. In the end, I felt like the Japan on display here, a swamp in which the tree of Scorsese’s faith will never take root.