For Martin Scorsese bringing “Silence” to the screen has been a fascinating journey. It started as an inspiration in 1989. Over the next 25 years it grew and evolved into something deeply personal for the filmmaker. In several interviews Scorsese has intimated that the film’s conceptual evolution mirrored his very own spiritual maturation. This intimate connection seeps from every pore of “Silence” making it a profoundly affecting labor of love.
It was in 1989 that Scorsese first read “Silence”, Shūsaku Endō’s historical fiction novel published in 1966. Scorsese immediately knew he wanted to make a film adaptation but he didn’t know how. Early attempts lead to an unfinished script in 1991. Plans to begin production in 1997 were postponed. More delays came in 2004 and 2011. But these postponements weren’t without purpose. During that time Scorsese gained a better sense of what “Silence” was saying. In his words he finally figured out “the heart of the book”.
Endō’s novel is a deep exploration of the depths of faith. It drills below the surface-level perceptions of faith, down to its most bare and intimate state. Scorsese’s cinematic study of this central spiritual theme is absorbing but also challenging. The story he and co-writer Jay Cocks tells is powerful and rooted in historical significance. At the same time the film is a bruising meditation that is calling its audience to self-reflection.
To get us to that point we follow two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (James Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). The two receive word that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has vanished after renouncing his faith amid intense persecution in the mission fields of Japan. Unconvinced of Ferreira’s apostasy, the two priests set out to find their mentor’s whereabouts despite the cloud of danger awaiting them.
The Japan of the 17th century was controlled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Christianity was deemed a threat and subsequently outlawed. Anyone breaking these laws faced torture and/or execution. It’s here that Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe sneak ashore with the aid of a boozing local vagrant named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). There the “padres” connect with a small village of Christians who secretly practice their faith in the dark of night.
It’s worth noting Scorsese’s use of his camera to portray the arduous, uncompromising world these two priests enter into. It feels just as foreign to us as it does them. Even the sound design contributes to the sense of uncertainty and isolation. The heightened sounds of nature routinely take the place of a your standard musical score and sometimes the silence itself speaks volumes.
Rodrigues and Garupe establish a semblance of ministerial and sacramental normalcy for the village believers and as a result see their own faith strengthened. But the region’s ruling shogunate led by the freakishly blithe and casually brutal Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) is intent on rooting out and purging the land of Christianity. His dogged persistence paves the way to the film’s central conflict – something much deeper than a faithful Christian versus his relentless persecutor.
The further you get into “Silence” the better you understand the challenge Scorsese lays before us. The obvious storyline is compelling, but to truly understand the heart of the story requires a willingness to internalize the theme of faith and reckon with what is revealed to you. Yes, it’s a deeply spiritual film but not a preachy one. In fact it could be said it asks more questions than it answers. Still Scorsese ponders these ideas with the sincerest curiosity and unflinching patience – the essence of faith, the pain of betrayal, our human frailty. And what do we make of God’s silence in the midst of tremendous suffering?
As you would expect the performances are sublime. Neeson’s portrait of anguish and conflict helps make his handful of scenes some of the film’s finest. Driver is as tense as he is gaunt which is strikingly in-tune with his type of character. That gets to Garfield, a guy who has steadily gotten better with each role he has taken. In “Silence” he literally transforms before our eyes both in character and performance. He plays it a bit safe early on but quickly tosses aside all restraints and commits every ounce of himself. Portraying spiritual struggle is tough and Garfield impressively carries the bulk of that load.
It has taken me two viewings and a lot of wrestling to truly figure out how I feel about this film and what it means to me. It’s that type of movie – one that can’t be appreciated with a mere surface reading. Despite its incredible artistry and beautifully sculpted scenes (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deserves an Oscar nomination), “Silence” seeks to be something more – a spiritual epic that not only reflects where Scorsese is in his personal journey but challenges us in ours.
“Silence” is a film that may not sit well with Scorsese die-hards looking for his normal cinematic swagger and it certainly doesn’t aim to be a 2 hour and 40 minute crowd-pleaser. But after a second look it clicked for me in every meaningful way. I still have questions the movie stirred up within me and I love the its unwillingness to give me every answer. In fact Scorsese isn’t saying he has every answer. But he is saying the questions are worth asking, and the answers you get just might change your life.
VERDICT – 5 STARS
A great review of a compelling film. I found it a very tough film to watch but it really stayed with me days after leaving the cinema and I’m not religious at all. Of course, while a totally different film, LA LA LAND will almost certainly sweep the boards at Awards ceremonies with its lighter-than-air-feel-good-nostalgia, SILENCE is a film which will stay in the memories for years to come.
Thanks. I’m a bit torn. I’m not sure how I want to consider this film. Is it one of the best of 2016 or is it the first great film of 2017? It had such a frustrating release schedule. As you can tell I absolutely loved it. You’re right, it is a tough film to watch, but it certainly sticks with you. I instantly felt compelled to see it again. And I’m glad to read that last line, because I too think this film is going to be remembered.
Absolutely agree re: 2016/2017 release dilemma. I basically consider the year when I saw the film as the year it is ‘released’. And ‘Silence’ will surely be on my best film list of 2017.
I think I’m going to approach it the same way. It had an extremely limited 2016 showing. Certainly wasn’t available anywhere close to me.
Nice review Keith. I’ve been thinking a lot about Silence for the past several weeks. While I’ve enjoyed all of Scorsese’s recent movies to various extents, none of them have quite had the originality or freshness that pictures like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull had. But Silence was really something else; it feels like Scorsese’s most intimate picture since Temptation and despite its length never appears bloated or overlong. It may be premature, but I’m willing to say this is perhaps Scorsese’s most perfect picture since GoodFellas.
Great to read those thoughts. I’m with you. I think “Silence” is one of his very best in large because of its freshness. Doesn’t feel like any of his other pictures. And as you said, the intimacy is striking.
Have you heard much chatter about this film? I’m a bit disappointed in how it seems to have been overlooked by many. It definitely isn’t made to be a crowdpleaser but I think it deserves more attention than it’s gotten.
I was talking about Silence’s failure at the box office a couple of days ago with a friend, and he argued that the film was completely unmarketable. And as much as I loved the movie, I had to agree. It’s a three hour film about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan with little action and much depression. Unfortunately audiences are not going to rush into theaters in droves for that.
Hmmm, I wish I could mount an argument against your point. Sadly I think you both are spot on. There is little there to attract bigger audiences. Feeding off of that, I also think it’s a movie only someone like Scorsese could make. His reputation and clout…
This has got to be Scorsese’s most thoughtful film to date. It really shows how versatile he is as a director – decades into his career, he’s still showing us a new side to his skills. Definitely one of my new favorites of his!
Same here. Definitely thoughtful and deeply personal. I wonder if many other filmmaker could make this film? Scorsese is so accomplished at this point. Otherwise would this film have been made? Either way I’m glad it was.
Glad you approved, Keith. I am dying to see this, but as of yet, it’s not offered by me. ARG.
Oh that stinks Cindy! Maybe it’ll open up soon in your area. I’ve seen it twice and it really has stuck with me. It’s not easy to sit through but so worth your time.
Ted just reviewed this for me that got me intrigued. I hope to rent this one day, too much going on right now for me to see stuff I’ve missed.
I went back and read over his review after seeing this again. I loved it. It’s a challenging picture but a very powerful one. Definitely one you’ll want to see.
I really want to see this not just as a Scorsese fan but also for the fact that it’s a film that is willing to question faith and play into the idea of God does exist.
As Scorsese said, this film really looks at the essence of faith. I love that he doesn’t buckle in his examination of it. He lays his heart out in this film and the results are brilliant. It’s not for everyone, but I absolutely loved it.
While I’m a Christian, I’m open enough to accept criticism of religion (as long as it’s objective and not mockery). This movie tackles on some hard questions. As I was watching it, it started to affect me negatively. Not my faith, but elements related to Christianity. Of course that I consider all of that good from a filmmaking point of view, but it (more than the torture on screen) made the movie a hard watch. By the time it was over, I was affected positively. You see, the message I took from the movie was that true religion is one’s faith. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself, what symbols you carry with you, how (or if) you pray or what others force you to do. Your beliefs (even if you’re an Atheist) have always been and always will be inside of you. After the movie, I went to a dinner. The people there always say a blessing before eating. I never do it, but I still appreciate it when they do. Anyway, this time, it felt different. If felt better.
Wow. Isn’t it amazing when a film can have that kind of effect? I loved reading your experience with it. I think it shows the depth of what Scorsese is doing. You’re right, it isn’t an easy watch. At the same time it was intensely powerful.
5 stars, nice! If everything goes well, I’m hoping to see it this weekend. I’m paranoid because my indie theater of all places got it and they tend to boot movies rather quickly. lol
Awesome! Hope you like it. I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts. It’s not a film that will appeal to broad audiences, but for me it was incredible.
I actually heard someone this morning call it “Oscar bait”. This person doesn’t know the definition of “Oscar bait”!
Stunning, stunning movie. I am psyched to see it got the K&M 5 stars treatment. (If it had anything less I would find a way to hack your account and upgrade the 4.5 or whatever it was to a 5 😉 Sneak attack!)
Silence is intense. Silence is hard to watch. But Silence is vital viewing for I think quite literally everyone in the world. It is sure to divide people, but I think its genius is in how Scorsese refuses to force a point of view. I struggled SO hard to figure out who was “right” and who was “wrong” here and in the end the answer was obvious — they were both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in various ways. Fascinating journey. Probably not one I’d take again but who knows. The delay I put in between viewings won’t be because I don’t think it’s a good film, that’s for sure!
I understand not wanting to hop right back in. It’s a tough one for sure. I went back because I still found myself wrestling with it. That second viewing brought so much more to light. It’s funny, once I left that viewing I knew it was 5 stars!
Let me ask you this (as someone else who adored the film), I was listening to a podcast that was referencing an article accusing this film of being another “white savior movie”. It literally angered me. Do you see that at all? I don’t want to throw out accusations of being too sensitive, but I think that idea does an injustice to what Scorsese is going for.
Great review, my friend! I’m anxious to see this one as I’ve heard conflicting reports about it – yours is the first flat-out acclimation of it being a classic I’ve read – but I’m interested to see how well Garfield does. His Oscar nod for Hacksaw Ridge didn’t feel earned (IMO) compared to other performances but this one might find him more in tune with the faith-based narrative than Gibson could muster in his film.
Thanks so much. It’s funny, after a first viewing I knew I really appreciated the film but still didn’t know where I landed overall. The second viewing opened my eyes to so many things Scorsese was going for.
As for Garfield, I liked him in Hacksaw Ridge but I agree, not to the level of earning an Oscar nomination. Between the two films I much prefer him in Silence. Hopefully you get to see it soon.
Hey Keith…just catching up; I read this a couple of days back having seen the film. I thought it was really good. Very meaty, plenty to think about, and unsurprisingly brutal, although the one thing that just took it below five stars for me was the two main performances; I think both Garfield and Driver are OK here, without being great. I’m not sure either quite has the gravitas yet for something like this, though I have enjoyed them in other films during the past couple of years and think both are getting better and better as they get older. Still, obviously Mr Scorsese was happy enough and what do I know in comparison?!! Oh and it looks beautiful.
Great to here my friend. I think this movie has remained unseen by so many people. It bums me out. Granted this is no film aimed at a box office draw, but I so wish more people would give it a shot. I was mesmerized by it. The first viewing left me a bit unsure about my feelings. The second viewing cemented them.
Interesting thoughts on the two leads. I really liked them. Driver is pretty low-key and doesn’t necessarily stand out, but I was impressed with Garfield. I think he has some early scenes where he feels uncertain, but as the film moves forward I really thought he completely fell into that character. He’s a strange one though. He clearly has some chops, but I do tend to think he is a bit hard to gauge as an actor. Do you sense that as well?
Yeah, I feel like Scorsese was definitely the only reason they attempted a wide release. Unfortunately left many theaters way too soon.
Way to soon. Strangely it has popped back up here at one of our smaller theaters. That’s good though.
Yeah I’m not sure what’s right for him at the moment…he’s trying a lot of different roles on for size, and who would ever turn down Scorsese anyway if he thought you were the right actor for the part? I did think he was perfectly cast in Hacksaw Ridge, for what it’s worth; it seemed like a more natural fit, and although that was a demanding part in different ways I think this is the film that asks a bit more of its actors.
I agree. “Silence” focuses on a much more internalized spiritual conflict and relating that is no easy task. What did you think of Neeson?
Uh…it was great to see Qui-Gon Jinn back after all these years! But surely he should have been testing for midichlorians rather than looking for crudely-made religious icons 😐
Ahhhhh yes! The dreaded midichlorians!!!!
Great write up. I am really looking forward to catching this one. Looks brilliant.
Thanks. This is a tricky one. I absolutely adore this film. I found it to be a wonderful experience. Others have had much different reactions. One blogger who I really enjoy thoroughly despised it. It has hit people differently.
It’s a film that stays in my head. It might be much better than I initially thought it was. Whoops.
It’s a weird one. I had some conflicting initial thoughts when I left the theater after a first viewing. But seeing it a second time really opened things up for me. Love it when that happens. I rarely give 5 stars but I’m really comfortable giving it to Silence.
Love seeing 5 stars for this incredible film.
Oh man, I had to. I am so reluctant to hand out 5 star scores (too reluctant) but I felt so strongly about this movie after the second viewing. Isn’t it a shame that the film has basically been ignored by the various awards?
Yup, definitely a shame. I can see why Garfield was nominated for Hacksaw over this–though I disagree, I can accept it. I am also not surprised at the lack of love for the Japanese cast, as incredible as they were. No Scorsese nod though? No production design? It’s unfortunate.
I should be watching this one.
It’s sooo good, unlike anything Scorsese has done in the past. It’s a tough watch, but a truly rewarding one. Hope you get to see it soon.
Fabulous review, man. I was tempted to give it the full score myself and for some reason my 4.5 rating feels like it’s undercutting Scorsese’s work. This is seriously great filmmaking and like yourself, I may have to give it another viewing to fully settle my score.
Totally agreed on Garfield. He might have received an Oscar mom for Hacksaw Ridge but his work here is far superior. Like I said before, I’m astonished this was overlooked at the oscars.
Astonished indeed! after a second viewing I better appreciated Garfield’s work in Hacksaw. But you are soooo right. His performance in Silence was head-and-shoulders above.
There are a lot of things that don’t make since about Silence’s treatment. First is its wacky release date. I came out here at the dead end of the calendar year and without much fanfare. And I didn’t initially hear much from critics either which makes me wonder how many Oscar voters even saw it prior to voting? I dunno.