Silence

Standard

 

review by © Jane Freebury

Here’s one from a director we can expect to throw us a curve ball. Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who enter Japan illegally during the 17th century in search of a former mentor thought to have abandoned his faith. They find shelter among coastal villagers who are clandestine Christian converts but are betrayed and turned over to the authorities. Some scenes of exquisitely cruel torture follow.

Celebrated for his brilliant films steeped in machismo, violence and crime, Scorsese turns to the ascetic world of faith, men of god and would-be saints. Perhaps there was nowhere to go after the heady extravagances of Wolf of Wall Street. There’s a pretty good chance its excesses exhausted us all.

However, Silence very nearly got the green light back in 2007.  Scorsese had read the Shusaku Endo novel on which his film is based, decades ago, and seen the original film. The book is a work of fiction loosely based on historical fact.

It’s not the first time Scorsese has adapted religious fiction. The Last Temptation of Christ, with Willem Dafoe’s Christ a stricken figure full of self-doubt, is also adapted from a novel. Kundun, a hypnotic, sensory biopic of the Dalai Lama, is a glorious cinematic work that did not prompt controversy.

Setting aside the astonishing background fact that Catholic missionaries first entered Japan a century before the film is set, the difficulties that missionaries experienced in far-flung countries is not the kind of subject likely to strike an immediate rapport with today’s audiences. Even for Martin Scorsese, this is a tricky one. As ever, he rises to the occasion.

After all, he has form with a gallery of riveting, monumentally flawed characters. The kind of guys once the stuff of B-movies, and he gives them the big-screen treatment, amplifying everything that’s wrong for all to see. It can look like he’s glorifying them, aroused by their bad ass natures, though he isn’t, but some ambiguity on that score leaves us a feeling bit uncomfortable.

Besides the obvious skill, intelligence, beauty and sensory pleasures of Scorsese’s work, it isn’t always easy justifying the attention he lavishes on his sinners who indulge their violence, misogyny, and various psychopathic tendencies. Sometimes, Scorsese has pulled back, indulging his love of music with a great rock documentary or illicit love (The Age of Innocence) but he usually doesn’t make it easy for us as he tosses around his ideas.

To hold our attention and focus our pleasure, Scorsese has made some of his best movies with hunks like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe he figures it’s easier to spend time on screen exploring difficult subject with the support of matinee idol looks.

In Silence, we have popular young actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver inside cassocks and behind bushy beards, as the two priests Rodriguez and Garupe respectively. Introducing the mainstream by the side door has its risks. Gaunt and bare chested, they may look the part—headed for martyrdom—though I wonder if other people had the trouble I had completely dissociating the young stars from their blockbuster and indie personas.

The rugged coast of Taiwan that stood in for the coast of southern Japan is utterly compelling with the result that Silence is gloriously powerful on atmosphere and very visually compelling. Battering waves, secretive coves, swirling sea mist, the mud and the rocks evoked a strong sense of man at the edge of survival, spiritual and physical.

Although Silence is over-long at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it did leave me with time to think in between the spare, furtive exchanges and gave distraction from some harrowing torture scenes. I got to wondering why the Japanese people gave their lives for their faith and the funny-looking strangers who embody it. It could only make a brutally hard life and the contempt of their overlords more difficult. Most importantly, Silence asks when does humanity finally intervene and replace religious strictures.

The unwavering faith of the poor Japanese villagers makes them the true believers. They had the dignity to remind the ravenous priests to say grace while tucking into welcome food. Although the traitorous, pathetic outsider Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) totally undermines the act of communion, by absolving himself of wrongdoing by seeking it.

Strong stuff? Yes, definitely. If we’re talking the director who unleashed Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and a truly terrifying remake of Cape Fear on us, what can we expect?

3.5 Stars

 

Also published at Canberra Critics’ Circle site