The phrase ‘passion project’ strikes fear and rouses interest in equal measure. Plenty of directors’ passions have played to dispassionate audiences, and it has taken almost thirty years of preaching its virtues for Scorsese to finally get Silence to screen. Yet his great achievement is that his love of the story has not become a tedious obsession; it is the film’s vital strength. Because of it, Silence is a wonderfully intelligent meditation on faith and the questioning of faith.
“Neeson is the only one whose Iberian imitation strikes a false note: inexplicably, he does not waver from his Celtic action-hero growl”
The story has been a glint in Scorsese’s eye since he read Shūsaku Endō’s bestselling 1966 Japanese novel on a bullet train whilst recovering from an onslaught of conservative Christian wrath in the wake of his boldly carnal The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese found solace in the torments of Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), Portuguese Jesuits sent to Japan to preach the gospel to hidden Christian communities and search for Father Cristòvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had gone before them.
‘I pray but I am lost,’ says Garfield’s Rodrigues. ‘Am I just praying to silence?’ Just as Scorsese’s faith in filmmaking and religion stuttered, so these preachers had questioned their God under the brutal religious persecution of Tokugawa era Japan. Scorsese bought the rights immediately, but struggled to set things in motion. With Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York), he has finally finished a screenplay and around it crafted a theologically complex film about the silence of God and the doubt it provokes, the relationship between external actions and inner faith, between ‘sins’ and sinning and the extent to which religions can pass into alien cultural territories.
At one point along the tempestuous road to filming (full of trials, legal and otherwise), Gael García Bernal and Benicio del Toro were signed to play Rodrigues and Garrpe, but Anglophones Garfield and Driver are consummate replacements for the Latin originals. With his Revenant-esque hirsuteness and teary fist-clenched remonstrations, Garfield commands cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s misty, boggy, 35mm frames for much of the two hours and 39 minutes, and Driver brings a deep-voiced, controlled piety to his support role (he lost 50 pounds in preparation). Neeson is the only one whose Iberian imitation strikes a false note: inexplicably, he does not waver from his Celtic action-hero growl.
Less contemplative Western filmmakers might have wandered dangerously into proud Eurocentrism, and in early scenes Japanese actors are worryingly expressionless foliage to our white protagonists, but Scorsese goes on to paint a revelatory picture of cultural interaction between East and West. The awkward humour of the Jesuits’ ignorance of Japan pierces the austere tone while not straying into the saccharine and we are treated to some wonderful bilingual Japanese performances. Issey Ogata is a crooning Cheshire cat as the often-disgusted Inquisitor Inoue; Tadanobu Asano (who replaced Ken Watanabe) manages to be both human and heartless as the interpreter to the Jesuits; and Yōsuke Kubozuka gives a wiry whole-body performance as the incessantly apostatising Christian Kichijiro.
Scorsese has given us a powerfully thought-provoking film on a complex subject. It could have been 20 minutes shorter, but that leaves only more time for contemplation. And after almost thirty years, there’s no harm in being here a little longer
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