I’ve always been fascinated by religion, more so now in my early twenties than I have been previously. I grew up reading condensed forms of passages from The Bible, reciting the lord’s prayer each morning at my primary school. When I transitioned to my secondary school I attended weekly chapel services, singing hymns and sitting once a week in the crypt to listen to sermons from the school Chaplin. I find Cathedrals and Churches to be some of the more beautiful and fascinating pieces of architecture, as they serve as a testament of the faith that others have to a deity, and I have been fortunate enough to visit many Cathedrals such as the one in Durham, as well as those in Italy and France.
I’m also of course fascinated by religion as a source of discussion for the bigger questions in life. Why are we here? Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? And so on. The fundamental reason behind my fascination with religion can be surmised in two categories, storytelling and faith. Some of the earliest documented forms of storytelling can be found in religious scripture which is arguably the foundation of modern storytelling, which is my passion. Faith is a concept I struggle to fully understand, and so I look to others of faith in order to attempt to form a greater understanding. Personally, there is a blurred line between faith and blind faith, and I view blind faith as something which is neither tangible nor as something that can be explained through absolutes. Faith is arguably fundamental for anyone entering any form of religious worship, and it is faith in a non-tangible deity that is beyond my capacity to fully accept. These two fundamental reasons for my own fascination with religion are the two more prominent themes analysed in Silence, a film which is perhaps better described as Scorsese’s own expression of his relationship with God.
Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors of all time, I do think this is a profound or unusual statement in any regard. His work has transformed the way in which we view cinema since his work began in the early 60’s, cementing his place in the hall of fame with many cinematic classics. So, when it was announced that he would be adapting Silence, a Japanese novel originally known as Chinmoku which was published in 1966, I was immediately struck by the perhaps unusual choice for the American based director.
Silence examines the story of two Jesuit Priests, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they travel to Japan to find their teacher Father Ferreira (Liam Nesson), who is rumoured to have committed apostasy. The film is set in the 17th century, at a time in Japan where Christians were being persecuted by the Japanese government for their faith, a government which believed Buddhism to be the true religion.
The film primarily focuses on Andrew Garfield’s character Rodrigues. Garfield has thus far in his career demonstrated an ability to engage with the emotionally powerful material. As shown by his portrayal in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield has a profound ability to tap into and engage with the emotional torment of any character he plays with a high level of success. This role has provided him with some far deeper material than he has previously worked with on in a film, pushing him as an actor with fantastic results. In fact, I could not help but be reminded of a young Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, not because I think Garfield underwent the same medical problems Sheen experienced. But because, like Sheen, Garfield away for a long period of time making this film. You also get the same feeling of how difficult this film was to make in those conditions. Both films also have a similar run time, which allows both the audience and the characters to really engage with a gritty realism felt by an environment they were not accustomed to. The film serves as a test of their sanity, Sheen more than Garfield on this one. Indeed, the two films share not only similar premises in their foundation but also a profound exploration of metaphysics.
Watching Silence, you can almost feel the great efforts Garfield must have gone through spirituality in order to play this role, and we know he spent time with priests. Much like Sheen was at the time, both men are young actors pushing themselves beyond expectations with esteemed directors at the helm. Through playing Rodrigues, Garfield had an enormous weight of responsibility, not only to the character but to those around him as the character deals with such a deep level of both religious intensity as well as rich emotional depth. It is a testament to the achievement of both Scorsese and Garfield that they were able to bring both this character and film through an ultimately satisfying journey. Not an easy task to do when you examine the source material and discuss religion.
My only question regarding Garfield’s portrayal of the character is to ask, why was Garfield was cast in the first place? I do think this was a strong performance, however, Sebastiao was, if you hadn’t guessed by the name, Portuguese. So instead Garfield does his best to emulate a Portuguese accent which begins in fine form as far as a British actor can deliver, but there are many moments towards the end of the film where he slips into his native accent. This also applies to the American actor Adam Driver, though he also does his best impression of a Portuguese accent, he is saved somewhat by having only half the script Garfield does.
Though I may criticise the men for attempting Portuguese accents, at very least they tried. Unlike Liam Neeson who is most definitely an Irish-men playing a Portuguese man who has an Irish accent. A shame really, as his performance is the best I’ve seen from him in years, in a role that allowed him to move away from the action genre that he used to redefine himself, shooting as many random foreigners as he can. Silence reminded me how his capability as an actor. Neeson is an emphatic actor who is able to play a strong mentor role, sharing the screen when required rather than stealing it. It’s just a shame he didn’t even attempt anything other than an Irish accent here.
My only other minor complaint regarding this film is the mysterious ageing process that productions attempt to use on their actors. I won’t say who it is applied to in this film as I fear that might be a spoiler, but films have tried numerous times to age their actors with poor results. As seen at the end of both Harry Potter and Nocturnal Animals. The difficulty is that when it is applied, your attention is immediately distracted as you examine their features, particularly evident of course on younger actors, you then become intensely aware that you are watching a film.
Those are my only two criticisms of this film because ultimately this is a profoundly intelligent depicted of a man questioning his religious beliefs in the most horrific conditions. He is being persecuted for his faith and the film manages to deliver a considerate constructed examination of two societies attempting to form some semblance of existence.
Scorsese’s use of Japan really is a testament of his filmmaking, using amazing location shots within rural areas. You really get a sense of authenticity for Japan which only further envelopes you in experience, because Silence is an experience. One rich with philosophical discussions, ethical dilemmas and with wonderful uses of the natural sounds and controlled ones, so that you really feel a powerful presence, which is perhaps Scorsese alluding to God’s presence in nature.
The film has been critically hailed as one of Scorsese’s’ more self-reflective pieces if viewed by some as a tad self-indulgent. The film, therefore, struggled to make an impact at the box-office, and although I was thoroughly captivated by the film, I do understand why it failed to be a more popular hit at there. This is a nearly 3-hour long film focusing on a man’s journey to not only find himself by finding his teacher but also reevaluating his relationship with God and his faith. His faith is tested continually as he deals with the dilemma of whether to stay true to his beliefs or to commit apostate. It’s as powerfully made as it is dark, filled with rich detail, intelligence and incredibly thought-provoking arguments. Culminated with a complex discussion of martyrdom, language, philosophy and ethics in a harrowing environment. So, you can hopefully see why this film was not seen as universally appealing, but it is a testament to the achievement of Scorsese that I was never once bored, but instead became totally submerged into this film from the first second until the very end.
OVERALL **** A fantastic depiction exploring the question of faith in two vastly different cultures, neither of which are totally innocent but that is a testament to the skill of the actors and director to have achieved something so richly captivating. My only two issues with this film are the ageing process which, as Moonlight has shown, can be far better handled, and the whitewashed casting of those characters arriving in Japan, with Neeson not even attempting to explore other accents.
RECOMMENDATION – This film will not be for everyone, but if by some stroke of luck having now read my review you feel intrigued by this idea then please do go and watch it. Out on DVD this week.