Silence: Review by JJP Murphy
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver
2 hrs, 40 mins
Rated ‘R’ /15
Genre: Historical /Survival Adventure Thriller/Drama/Philosophical
Based on the Novel by Shûsaku Endô
Spider-Man and Kylo Ren team up to rescue Ras Al Jinn from the evil FIRST ORDER on the Planet ‘Japan’. Ok, that’s not it. At least, not quite. But not a million miles off, either.
Think STAR WARS for grown ups and epic survival films without the trappings of an epic score or rousing finale or action set pieces. What you get is a refreshingly adult, literate and thematically rich film, crafted by the master archivist and innovator of film, Martin Scorsese.
It will make you think, give you lots to reflect on and talk about and it is a visual feast of sorts. But make no mistake: this is a brutal, explicit, sombre meditation on the nature of missionary Christianity and the limitations of faith in the face of oppression. Feel-good, rip roaring adventure..this aint..despite ironically sporting many trappings associated frequently with said genres..
Do you long for a movie that is daring and innovative and somehow entertaining and engrossing? And yet not another cut and paste super-hero origin story with Deus Ex Machina climax via thrashing generic score? Well if so, Happy New Year to you!
Because SILENCE is a masterpiece that dares to be different. It is NOT an easy watch. There is a meaty menu of dialogue and clash of cultures and ideas in the script, but an absence of ‘noise’. Little if any score. Long, luxuriating scenes with maximum focus upon the actors and the atmosphere. So in effect, the title says it all: one could be watching a silent film.
But then, what would one expect from director Martin Scorsese? He is an innovator, and also a treasurer and unofficial archivist come protector of cinema. And so, with SILENCE, we are treated to the most traditional forms of editing and camera work, fused to theatrical intimacy in the actors’ performances. All applied to a rich and exotic vista of cinematic canvas, wrapped in a gritty take on travelogue, across the wild worlds of 17th century Japan. It’s also a further and most satisfying exploration of Christian Theology and Buddhist Philosophy from Scorsese, having broached both before with Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, respectively.
The premise is deceptively simple, for a film rich in philosophical subtext. A revered Priest (Neeson) is taken hostage in Japan, while trying to spread the Gospel. Two of his novices (Garfield and Driver; both excellent) learn of their master’s plight and undertake a rescue mission. As with all great adventure stories, our heroes are warned against taking the steps into the perilous unknown. Also in keeping with tradition, they ignore said caution and embark on a challenging quest.
We see two simple believers take their faith to its limits and beyond. They will risk everything for what they believe to be right. Theirs is a blind faith, emboldened by a quite literal belief that the living Christ can guide them and converse through prayer. They are devoted to a specifically Catholic iteration of Christian faith. And one key feature of that denomination is a trans-substantive belief in the literal presence of Christ (as opposed to the merely con-substantive and more Protestant view that Christ can be present in symbol and sign).
That’s not an easy belief system to embrace and arguably explains why Catholic Communion is so frequently misunderstood and misrepresented even in today’s supposedly more tolerant and multi-cultural times (‘you Catholics are Cannibals’ etc: no, we really aren’t..sorry). And it is also why if one truly and literally embraces the essentials of the Catholic iteration of Christianity, that they MUST take their faith to others; dying in the act of proseltysation if need be. It is something I must confess to struggling with, as a Catholic, old boy of Worth Abbey and an Oxford Theology graduate (oh, and enlightened, secular-friendly, thoroughly modern and nice bloke, naturally 😉 ). We all do, surely?
Thankfully, there are get out of jail free clauses, ready made, from Saint Padre Pio and Graham Greene, quoted to me frequently by my late (and much missed) Grandfather. That old mantra of ‘I believe in the mystery‘. IE: One need not take every step of doctrine as literal guide in order to still respect, embrace and embody the philosophical essence of a Christian path.
And Scorsese himself, at the heart of SILENCE is saying that, even the most devoted of Christian missionary, can and will fall short on occasion. One simply has to TRY, within limitations of human survival, reason and compassion, to evangelise the pervasive and core Christian philosophy of love. One can accomplish that goal, even if actual Theology or Religious practices are rejected by an intended audience.
The ‘audience’ in question here is a most unforgiving Japanese regime of the 17th century. They make their world war 2 counterparts look positively tame, such is the sheer sadism and base bullying on display when they punish the outlawed Catholic missionaries. Bridge on the River Kwai? That’s a summer camp next to this nadir in sub-human brutality.
Think perversion of all the nobility in Samurai culture. Multiply by infinity. And not even close. These are among the most menacing threats Scorsese has given us onscreen. And he’s the man who enabled Joe Pesci to personify pure evil so well in Good Fellas!
The antagonists here think nothing of torture and enforced blasphemy. It is not enough to trigger a recanting of belief in the prisoners. No: victims here are made to desecrate a relic and spew poisonous profanity, just to prove they are now on message with a brutally oppressive regime.
If that sounds familiar and pertinent, then it is because our own latter day heroes of faith face precisely such threats in the shadow of ISIS. Indeed, even at a more blandly domestic yet still poisonously insidious level, the rise of the liberal /atheist axis in the twitter-verse surely makes one think twice before voicing a moral or political view that might – heaven forbid – have a Christian /Catholic /Conservative angle to it? We are coerced, today, into a ‘silence’, all the while masked by a new frontier of online noise and ‘freedom’ of expression. We just don’t know it yet.
In an equivalent manner, the Japanese villains of the piece in this movie, claim to be acting in the interests of, and thereby facilitating, some sort of philosophical dialogue against the drawbacks of Christianity, relative to Buddhist belief systems and more practical crafts. Yet the louder they shout about such an understanding, the clearer it is that their oppression is an end in itself and like all extremism and violence, the philosophical pretext is simply a charade and an excuse for the garnering of power through fear. SILENCE is not simply an historical document therefore, but a timeless cautionary tale.
I do not wish to dwell solely on the dour and the dark. Moments of hope and joy in sacramental Theology; even awkward levity and black humour all feature at some point in the film. The clash of ideas with the villains even arouses momentary laughter. Notice also that Scorsese quite specifically avoids the kind of fetishised violence that say, Mel Gibson might go for in bringing this world to life. (No offence, Mel: indeed, Hacksaw Ridge is coming soon, also stars Andrew Garfield and we already admire the movie).
Drawbacks? SILENCE is a LONG film. VERY. VERY. LONG. Hence this VERY LONG REVIEW (sorry..could not be bothered to write a short one). Without being flippant, one wishes their inner Blackadder would pop up in one of the heroes and simply say ‘I recant my Catholicism!’. People saved. Movie finished at least an hour earlier! Hurrah!
It’s also BIT of a shame to use the trappings of epic adventure (high seas boat rides! villages besieged!) and not also give us a cracking score / fightback scene with rousing speech to match. I feel a BIT cheated, too, that LIAM NEESON is featured so prominently in the marketing yet has a VERY small role (though frankly it is among his finest performances: a kind of ‘greatest hits package’ that should net him an Award nomination or two).
SILENCE is brilliant. Visually stunning, intellectually and spiritually rewarding. An inspiration. It’s apt that the cast consists primarily of veterans from the STAR WARS and comic book adventure genres. Because this a super-hero movie for grown ups. The special power: faith and endurance. And that is worth witnessing once in a while, if only to balance the cinematic diet and escape the usual ‘noise’, so to speak. Scorsese’s SILENCE is undoubtedly a worthy start to 2017, and I trust the film will win suitable recognition.
Grade A- : Go and watch in peace..