Martin Scorsese is a brilliant, gifted artist who has given audiences bold and daring films for the last forty years that have ennobled the art form. He is a filmmaker in love with the very art form he creates, and honors that art each time he makes a movie, in some way attaching each film to the past. Never an artist to sit tight on what he has done, Scorsese has always attempted to evolve as an artist and has done a great job doing so. He challenges himself with each new work.
His latest effort, ‘Silence’, is a dark, brooding masterpiece that is light years from anything he has ever done before, including his Dali Lama epic Kundun (1997). ‘Silence’ is a daring film for Scorsese, one that has taken him 28 years to get to get to the screen and he finally played hardball making it clear he would not make another film until someone allowed him to make this one. Paramount, who have been involved with Scorsese for several years stepped forward and helped the director make his film.
It is, make no mistake, a masterpiece, though a challenging one. The film will no doubt divide audiences, many will struggle with the leisurely pace, and the manner in which the director uses tableaux in the film, the sequences sometimes breathtaking in their raw and primal beauty.
Based on the 1966 book by Shusaku Endo, the film explores the events in the 17th century, which transpire when two young Portugese priests are sent into Japan to find their mentor who has either renounced his religion or been killed by the Japanese. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is sent along with another priest, portrayed forcefully by Adam Driver in hopes of finding Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Rodrigues believes the Japanese to be horrible people who attack anyone not following their own beliefs and who hold his religion anad the cross in utter contempt. Finally captured by the Japanese, Rodrigues is offered the chance to renounce his own religion and save the lives of others or maintain his own beliefs. Granted it can look unspeakably arrogant to maintain ones faith when others will suffer for it, but again Rodrigues, wh prays for guidance is met with silence.
As the Inquisitor, who firmly explains why Catholicism was kept out of Japan with a fervour, Issey Ogata is magnificent, giving a stunning performance that all but steals the film. Though the Jesuits make a strong argument, the little man shuts them down at each turn with a stony resolve why this religion will not work in a country with such a different cultural identity. His voice a sing song of almost mocking condescension he has no trouble sending men to horrible deaths and using torture to get what he wants. Not any of his praying for an answer brings Rodrigues one as to who the Inquisitor really is.
What is God? Who is God and does he in fact exist? Many believe so, others do not, while there are those of us stuck in the middle who do not believe in one almighty God but do believe in some form of afterlife.
Scorsese has never been afraid to explore religion in his films, most famously in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) which portrayed Christ for the first time on screen as just a man. He was terrified of the voices he heard, terrified of being the son of God, and most of all terrified of what his destiny was, to be crucified on a cross. That film gives us a Christ who is flesh and blood, not a being with this beautific light around him, calm and peaceful, Scorsese gave us a person, not a thing.
‘Silence’ in all its dark beauty suggests what man sacrifices and bears in his search for enlightenment or utter ruin and damnation. Does a belief in God suggest complete enlightenment? I do not think so, anymore than not believing brings about eternal damnation. In the film we have two clashing beliefs, neither right or wrong, but the men holding strong to their own beliefs prove capable of terrible things to bring about their own right.
Garfield has never been this strong on screen before, he is quietly superb, haunted, and always questioning. Driver continues his ascension to the top of the heap of young American actors, the heir apparent to Brando and possibly the finest of his generation. Liam Neeson is nothing short of brilliant, but in the film far too little for my liking. This is a great actor who has not had a great role for a very long time, and if anyone ever gets moving on the George Washington epic we hear so much about, he is their General Washington.
The cinematography in the film is stunning in its raw, primal beauty. This is a hard land, with a raging ocean and hard mountain peaks that challenge even the finest of climbers.
Scorsese is our greatest living director and once again he has made a memorable piece of art, though admittedly a challenging one that will not be for all tastes.