SILENCE (2016, Martin Scorsese)
I can’t imagine ever sitting through this movie again, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s not really good. I’m generally allergic to overtly religious cinema, especially three-hour epics centered expressly on the idea of faith, but this is about as good as filmmaking gets when it wants to explore how humans question what drives them. It’s good because it doesn’t preach — an amazing feat given that all its characters are either missionary Jesuit priests hell-bent on spreading the word of God or angry Buddhist inquisitors hell-bent on removing Christianity from Japan — instead, it shows the violence mankind will do to each other in the name of religious intolerance.
There’s no question the heroes in this film are the Catholics, and the violent villains are the inquisitors — but that doesn’t mean Scorsese doesn’t sympathize with both the men who choose to understand other ways of believing (like Liam Neeson’s fallen Father Ferreira) or the Buddhists who want to protect their country from invaders threatening their worship of nature itself. Still, this film is about what so many non-religious films are also about: how we survive life on earth against towering obstacles. What choices do we have to make and what will we sacrifice?
Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues (he’s excellent in the role, despite a weird and unnecessary Portuguese accent) suffers the ultimate crisis of faith in face of God’s silence (the lack of divine intervention during the horrors Rodrigues witnesses and endures is what inspires the title), but he simply wills himself to survive and find a life he can answer for — something not uncommon for Scorsese heroes and antiheroes. The world is an ugly, violent, seemingly amoral place, and who knows if there’s any punishment now or later for it (is that really much different from the genius’s previous film, the masterpiece THE WOLF OF WALL STREET?) — and blind faith could either be what saves us or damns us. (The final shot is insanely powerful: without being too specific, I’ll just say it’s a poignant visual juxtaposition of both damnation and salvation).
Technically, this may not be Scorsese’s cleanest effort. Long-time hall of fame editor Thelma Schoonmaker lets a lot of continuity errors fly, backed by equally dubious dialogue editing and ADR. Some ILM effects, like the CG stake-burning, is outright goofy. But Rodrigo Prieto’s characteristically rapturous photography goes a long way, and it’s hard to fault any single camera placement throughout. Jay Cocks was also the co-writer on THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and just as in that film, his fealty to the source material’s prose (a book I haven’t read by Shûsaku Endô) forces him to rely heavily on voiceover, even when unnecessary. Adam Driver, like Garfield, affects an initially off-putting accent but couldn’t be more dedicated emotionally to every scene. This is a work with sweat all over it, for better and for worse, but it’s great to see a filmmaker this talented continuing to create such raging, energetic art deep into his 70s.