|Martin Scorsese’s “Silence “ is not an easy film to watch. At times it’s grotesquely violent, at others tediously slow. But it is a full and worthy cinematic experience that is bold, thought provoking and utterly singular. That it’s also a nearly three-decade effort from one of our living greats is just an interesting factoid in the end — plus, we’ve been here before a few times over with Scorsese’s passion projects.|
Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence”) adapted “Silence” from Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name. Set in the 17th century, the film follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) who journey to Japan to try to find their fellow missionary, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has been rumored to have renounced his faith.
It’s an acutely dangerous mission, which Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) tries to dissuade Rodrigues and Garrpe from pursing. In the years after the Shimabara Rebellion, Christianity in Japan was practiced only in secret — iconography and texts were confiscated and the known and even suspected devout were tortured and killed. But, driven by faith and duty Rodrigues and Garrpe might as well not have a choice in the matter at all. They can’t even fathom not going, though, and thus they do.
The two men have to sneak into the country with the help of a semi-trustworthy scoundrel who is still reeling from his own crisis of faith. Japan (really, Taiwan where they shot) even looks uninviting. Shot by Rodrigo Prieto with production design from Dante Ferretti, the gray skies seem ready to close in on the mountains and subdued landscapes, and below, the dark sea thrashes violently against the shore.
When they arrive, their series of trials begin. They preach to local villagers desperate for an organized religion they’ve been forbidden from, they give away every cross and rosary they have and wonder whether the impoverished townspeople cherish the objects more than the meaning behind them, and they watch as authorities come through and ravage the towns looking for Christians to test.
Rodrigues and Garrpe separate for their safety and we continue to follow Rodrigues through the Japanese countryside as he encounters more dire displays of Japan’s utter and complete intolerance for Christianity. In one of the more powerful sequences, three older men are hung from crosses positioned deep in the ocean’s waters — the thrashing waves killing them slowly for their refusal to apostatize. An increasingly haunted Rodrigues looks on from a hiding spot.
Garfield carries the film and Rodrigues’ agony on his slight shoulders — his second film about faith in a single season, following Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.” But it is Japanese actor Issey Ogata who steals the show as an older samurai who not only tells Rodrigues what’s what but provides some of the funniest and disturbing moments in the film. It’s a tonal departure, but a welcome one in what can be a bit of a slog.
It’s a much more traditional and subdued film than the knowingly provocative “The Last Temptation.” There’s no Peter Gabriel guitar and nothing that is likely to enrage or inspire protests. But it does pick at doubt in a spiritually similar way. Rodrigues knows what his faith requires, and yet it continues to be tested and challenged by the physical and political realities of where he’s inserted himself. Do the peasants, so grateful for his teachings, actually believe? Or are they looking for a way to the afterlife? What good, he’s forced to wonder, is he actually doing there? “Silence” is as much about colonialism and intolerance as it is faith and conviction. While I’m still not sure what Scorsese wants the audience to think by the time the screen goes to black, the questions raised nonetheless feel modern and resonant.
“Silence,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some disturbing violent content.” Running time: 161 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Scorsese’s Manhattan office, in a midtown building a few blocks northwest of the cordoned-off Trump Tower, may be the most concentrated bastion of reverence for cinema on the face of the earth.
There’s a small screening room where Scorsese screens early cuts of his films and classic movies for his daughter and his friends. There’s his personal library of thousands of films, some he taped himself decades ago. Film posters line the walls. Bookshelves are stuffed with film histories. And there are editing suites, including the one where Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker regularly toil with a monitor dedicated to the continuous, muted playing of Turner Classic Movies.
“It’s a temple of worship, really,” says Schoonmaker.
Scorsese’s latest, “Silence,” may be the film that most purely fuses the twin passions of his life: God and cinema. Scorsese, who briefly pursued becoming a priest before fervently dedicating himself to moviemaking, has sometimes seemed to conflate the two.
“Silence” is a solemn, religious epic about Jesuit priests in a violently anti-Catholic 17th century Japan.
“Silence” is an examination of belief and doubt and mysterious acts of faith. But making the film was such an act in itself.
“Acting it out, maybe that’s what existence is all about,” Scorsese says of his faith. “The documentary on George Harrison I made, ‘Living in the Material World,’ that says it better. He said if you want an old man in the sky with a beard, fine. I don’t mean to be relativist about it. I happen to feel more comfortable with Christianity. But what is Christianity? That’s the issue and that’s why I made this film.”
It wasn’t easy. Scorsese, 74, may be among the most revered directors in Hollywood, but “Silence” is almost the antithesis of today’s studio film. To make it Scorsese had to drum up foreign money in Cannes and ultimately made the film for about $46 million. Everyone, including himself, worked for scale.
Few today are making movies with the scope and ambition of “Silence” — a fact, he grants, that makes him feel like one of the last of a dying breed in today’s film industry.
“Cinema is gone,” Scorsese says. “The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone.”
“The theater will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be?” he continues. “Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to the special experience of ‘2001’ in 1968. The experience of seeing ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Searchers’ in VistaVision.”
Scorsese points to the proliferation of images and the overreliance on superficial techniques as trends that have diminished the power of cinema to younger audiences. “It should matter to your life,” he says. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.” (AP)
Scorsese’s comments echo a tender letter he wrote his daughter two years ago . The future of movies, he believes, is in the freedom that technology has yielded for anyone to make a movie.
“TV, I don’t think has taken that place. Not yet,” adds Scorsese, whose “Boardwalk Empire” was lauded but whose high-priced “Vinyl” was canceled after one season. “I tried it. I had success to a certain extent. ‘Vinyl’ we tried but we found that the atmosphere for the type of picture we wanted to make — the nature of the language, the drugs, the sex, depicting the rock ‘n’ roll world of the ’70s — we got a lot of resistance. So I don’t know about that freedom.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, some have expressed hope for a return to the kind of ‘70s filmmaking Scorsese is synonymous with.
“If the younger people have something to say and they find a way to say through visual means as well as literary, there’s the new cinema,” says Scorsese. But the current climate reminds him more of the ‘50s of his youth. “I’m worried about double-think or triple-think, which is make you believe you have the freedom, but they can make it very difficult to get the picture shown, to get it made, ruin reputations. It’s happened before.”
“Silence,” which Scorsese screened for Jesuits at the Vatican before meeting with the pope, remains a powerful exception in a changing Hollywood.
“He wanted to make this film extremely differently from anything out there,” says Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor since “Raging Bull.” ‘’He’s just tired of slam-bam-crash. Telling the audience what to think is what he really hates. Trying to do a meditative movie at this point, in this insane world we’re in now, was incredibly brave. He wanted to stamp the film with that throughout: the pace, the very subtle use of music.
“How many movies start without music at the very beginning under the logos?” she adds. “He said, ‘Take out all that big Hollywood.’”
By Lindsey Bahr