The new religious epic Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, has reportedly been a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s since the early 1990s and after viewing the film, it’s easy to see why he’s been so eager to adapt it after all these years. The thematic territory is right in Scorsese’s wheelhouse: the concepts of doubt, guilt, suffering and sin have been explored in countless iterations throughout his prolific career. His work here has many positive elements, especially from a technical perspective, but the story is just too thin and comes off as repetitive and monotonous over a runtime that feels punishingly long by design.
The year is 1633 and we’re introduced to two Portuguese Jesuits named Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) as they journey to Japan to rescue their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they receive distressing letters detailing his capture. Upon their arrival, they find a land ruled harshly by the shogunate who terrorize villages to weed out suspected Christians and force them to denounce their religion under punishment of death. As the priests fight for survival in the treacherous countryside, they also struggle to avoid a personal crisis of faith and to maintain their own personal beliefs when being surrounded by near-constant apostasy.
Perhaps atoning for the unhinged debauchery that pervaded 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has crafted a movie that is reverent and staid with the patience that only a masterful filmmaker like he can exhibit. Furthermore, he has assembled a production team that is absolutely first-rate in every regard; each technical aspect from the lighting to the sound design to the editing is carried out with breathtaking precision. I particularly want to praise Rodrigo Prieto’s jaw-dropping work on the gorgeous cinematography, which is the best I’ve seen in all of 2016 and reason enough to see Silence on the big screen.
Where the film began to lose me was during the second act, after the tension of the missionaries’ presence subsides and Scorsese falls into a curious cycle of sidelining his main characters while they quietly observe the torture and execution of secret Christians. One of these instances, in which three prisoners contend with a slowly persistent rising tide, is captivating and full of pitch-perfect dread but after about four or five variations of this scene play out, the routine seems needlessly cruel. Things pick up again in the third act, even if the storytelling gets heavy-handed at times, but it’s the punishing middle section that makes Silence a more sluggish affair than it should have been.
More misjudgments occur with the central casting too, as I was never fully convinced that talented actors like Driver and especially Garfield were a good fit in their lead roles. Neither give a bad performance but it felt like there was something out of place or just fundamentally incompatible with their acting sensibilities and this particular material (it also doesn’t help that Garfield frequently looks like he walked out of a shampoo commercial with his carefully managed man bun). Silence isn’t the masterpiece that it could have been but it has enough thought-provoking questions and individually powerful sequences to warrant a viewing from the more philosophically restless among us.