Silence has been on Martin Scorsese’s back-burner for a long time, continually putting it off for other projects since the 1990s. At this point, it’s an understatement to call it a passion project as much as an obsession. It’s a movie he is adamant to get right.
After reading the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, I was skeptical Scorsese could pull it off, considering the novel’s formal literary style in contrast to the famous director’s usual informal flair and unconventionality. I couldn’t be happier to be proven wrong. He takes a totally different approach, moving away from his comfort zone and succeeds at faithfully adapting and honoring a beautiful novel. By the end, the emotional weight of this film will leave you speechless.
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese and directed by Scorsese, Silence is set in the seventeenth century and follows two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to find their lost mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and try to keep the struggling underground church from crumbling under the brutal persecution of Inquisitor Inoue.
Though I’m sure Scorsese would want the film to be judged entirely based upon its own merits, I think it’s important to view it in light of the novel. Adaptations from novel to film are difficult because both mediums tell stories differently. Novels tend to take their time while film demands action and consistent pacing.
To his credit, Scorsese stays true to the novel, sticking close to the characters and plot points, but doesn’t get lost in the weeds of the book, taking what he needs to make a strong cinematic experience and leaving the rest out. This turns out to be a double-edged sword. The slow pacing tests the audience patience, but Scorcese keeps things interesting by plunging you into the heart of Japanese Christian persecution, not shying away from its awful brutality. While the plot greatly hinges on finding Ferreira, it’s easy to forget with the several subplots that pop up following the priests’ journey.
Regardless, the characters are well-drawn and relatable. Rodrigues’s (Garfield) arc is the most palatable. Thrusting a naive and eager Christian priest on fire in his faith into a foreign land with a government that heavily persecutes Christians creates a compelling story when the priest is tested in his faith. The gradual progression is well-paced and well-told and is the most heart-breaking and tragic part of the entire story. So, while the plot pacing of finding Ferreira is strained, Rodrigues’s character arc flows perfectly.
The subtext and themes raised give the story texture, including man’s inhumanity to man, doubt in the face of persecution and whether one still has faith even if he denies it under persecution. Throughout the film, the Japanese government hunts down and tests people to see if they are Christians by forcing them to stamp their foot on a slab with Jesus’s face. If they do this, then they are set free (but then they will be considered apostate by their fellow Christians) and if they don’t do it then they will be killed. The ways in which the 17th century Japanese martyred Christians is some of the most brutal and grisly torture imaginable.
The Christians are tormented with boiling water poured slowly on their skin. They are hung on crosses out in the ocean for days until they starved or drowned. Sometimes, an incision is made behind their ear and then they are hung upside down in a pit so that the blood drains slowly and they won’t die quickly. Of all the themes, this one is clear — men are willing to go to violent depths to stamp out a religion. And Rodrigues struggles against this heavy persecution, questioning if God is there, if he is silent and if he cares for him and the Japanese Christians.
Andrew Garfield carries these weighty themes on his shoulders and does them justice, intensifying them through his nuanced and emotional performance. It’s clear Garfield has a lot to prove and is all in, trying to provide a lot of range with a character that demands it. As a kind of side-kick to Garfield’s character, Adam Driver’s character, Garrpe, doesn’t say or do much besides give Rodrigues a friend to bear his burdens with. Yet with such a limited role, Driver gives it his all, losing forty pounds, putting on the best Portuguese accent he can, and acting as a stoic counterweight to Rodrigues’s emotional connection to the Japanese people.
Regrettably, amidst the wonderful artistry within the film, a horrible miscast character is found in Liam Neeson’s pathetic and half-baked portrayal of Father Ferreira. While Neeson does well during the quieter scenes, showing a grieved man pushed to his wit’s end – it’s when he speaks that the house of cards falls apart.
From the beginning, Garfield and Driver are intent on capturing the full embodiment of their characters including a Portuguese accent. Neeson, on the other hand, doesn’t feel this is necessary, talking more like Bryan Mills from Taken. Perhaps it’s a small critique but the scenes between Neeson and Garfield don’t do so well. Ferreira is Portuguese after all and it would only make sense Neeson would have an accent. It strips the high authenticity away when a high caliber actor like Neeson doesn’t stick to his character’s nationality or at least follow his counterparts lead.
It makes me wonder if Neeson either didn’t care or couldn’t pull off the accent. That aside, Neeson still disappoints with a performance that should have been pivotal but comes across as a footnote overshadowed by Garfield’s superior acting.
Perhaps not since The Mission has there been a quality masterpiece about Christian missionaries. Silence excels at almost everything it sets out to achieve including gorgeous cinematography, powerful acting and an adaptation that sticks to the core of the novel. Above all, Silence points to relevant themes on man’s cruelty, man’s faithlessness, but also man’s vigilant hope in the face of persecution. While it’s not for the faint of heart, it certainly is worth the journey.
Photos Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures