Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) has made many films across a variety of genres, but many of them come back to a central theme: faith. While The Last Temptation of Christ was vociferously shouted down by many establishment Catholics, Silence — a pet project of Scorsese’s some 28 years in the making — had its premiere in Rome, followed by a screening in Vatican City. This is intensely personal filmmaking that speaks to something deep inside the religious psyche, to more viewers than Scorsese alone. Silence is a film shot in two and a half languages, shot in one country masquerading as another: there’s a lot of translation at play here.
1633. Following news that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, A Monster Calls) has renounced his faith, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge) and Garupe (Adam Driver, TV’s Girls) travel to Japan to investigate the truth of the matter and attempt to minister to the people. Though they try to hide, Rodrigues must eventually face Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, Parasyte), and answer to their torture.
Adapted from Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel by Jay Cocks (De-Lovely) and Scorsese himself, Silence is a long and mostly accurate adaptation of a relatively short work of historical fiction, albeit based on a true story. Where there’s a delicious ambiguity to Endo’s original work, Scorsese makes the outcome of his incarnation of the story more definite. Silence is a work that benefits from a literal interpretation, with each development rendered more impactful as it plays out on the screen.
Impressively for a film where most of the actors do not share a common language, Scorsese has wrung high quality performances from them all. Garfield renders his struggle entirely believable, and his interplay with Tadanobu’s stern but seemingly reasonable Interpreter shows that it apostasy is not simply a formality to him. As the Inquisitor, Ogata is sinister and overbearing in the best possible way, enacting policy that seems undeniably barbaric to foreign eyes but which make perfect sense in the context of a largely exclusionary government. Another highlight of the Japanese cast is Yosuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, a character who makes almost no sense on paper, rendered three dimensional and complex through screen presence alone.
In his screen time, Neeson dominates proceedings even as he plays an increasingly shrinking character. In one of his career best performances — let down only by his stubborn inability to even attempt to match the accents of his Western costars — Neeson fully embodies Ferreira’s agony, showcasing his misery, doubt and self-loathing in exquisite fashion.
Silence boasts superlative cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto (Passengers); each shot is beautifully framed, from covert beaches in the dead of night to blisteringly hot days in an unforgiving samurai compound. The spartan, near non-existent, score serves to emphasise the solitude of Rodrigues; by film’s end you’ll be as intimate with his situation as with the cicadas of Taiwan masquerading as Japan.
Silence is one of Scorsese’s less commercial films, but it’s no less worthy for that. Devoid of flash, overflowing with excellent performances, and abundantly endowed with meaning — to the point that subtext is practically non-existent — Silence is the film Scorsese felt that he had to make. More than a passion project, Silence is a paradoxically tight but expansive work of cinematic art.
Silence opened in Australian cinemas on February 16, 2017.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issey Ogata and Liam Neeson.