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Review: Martin Scorsese brings his passion project to life with the profound and deeply religious ‘Silence’

Silence, an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s controversial 1966 novel of the same name, deals directly with the contradictions of devout religious belief. The story follows a pair of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrupe (Adam Driver) who travel to Japan in the 17th century. They have heard their mentor and fellow Jesuit, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith publicly amid violent persecution and torture.

This cannot be, they decide. Ferreira, widely revered for his devotion to God, must have found the strength to resist. They believe it is their duty to find him and spread the gospel, in a country whose government views Christianity as a direct threat to their culture. They stow away on a trade ship and sneak into Japan, emboldened by their faith but unaware of the misery that awaits them.

What follows is a contemplative, brutal journey, fraught with troubling questions. It is a perfect fit for Martin Scorsese, a director whose greatest films focus on the morality of sinners. Raging Bull, long considered his masterpiece, followed boxer Jake LaMotta, who subjected himself to horrific violence in the ring as a method of punishment for his regrets. The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s most recent film, put the depravity of Wall Street mogul Jordan Belfort on display and wondered whether his evilness was in all of us.

On the surface, it seems odd that Scorsese would choose Silence to follow a black comedy like Wolf. But the filmmaker has been trying to adapt Endo’s novel for more than two decades, finally committing to its completion in 2013. He would not make another film, he declared, until Silence was finished. 

His devotion to the project is evident in the care with which it is shot. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto delivers consistently breathtaking moments over the film’s three hours; it is the most visually arresting film of Scorsese’s career.

The performances, while impressive for the actors’ commitment (Garfield immersed himself in a series of “spiritual direction” exercises for weeks, and Driver lost almost fifty pounds), exist at the service of the film. Garfield is asked to carry most of the dramatic weight, an exceedingly difficult task considering Rodrigues’ conflict in the novel is largely internal. Garfield is aided by a healthy amount of narration, usually delivered in quiet, steady tones. The result is a performance that feels more a part of the narrative than a major achievement for the actor.

Silence’s strength comes from the difficult challenges it presents to both Rodrigues and Garrupe regarding their willingness for martyrdom. Tortured and imprisoned for weeks while Japanese Christians die around them, both missionaries are asked to trample a fumi-e, a crude likeness of Jesus, and renounce their faith. Doing so will free the others from suffering.

Is it immoral to choose death over apostasy? Is Rodrigues truly protecting his faith, or his pride? And most vitally, is an act that is considered sinful, but committed for the greater good, ultimately forgivable in the eyes of God? 

A subtler film would have left these questions unanswered. Silence leaves little to the imagination, thanks mostly to a clunky and forceful epilogue. In the final twenty minutes, the film loses restraint and begins making judgments for the audience. It is an uncomfortably forceful note upon which to end. 

But there is great power in this story, even to the non-religious. Scorsese delivers the film with such artful mastery that its emotional pull is difficult to ignore. The filmmaker has completed his 23-year-old journey and given the world the movie he has always wanted to make. That in itself is a miracle. 

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]