Saturday, 25 February 2017

Silence (2017) - Movie Review

When talking about a filmmaker as lauded as Martin Scorsese, traditional adjectives like “important”, “influential” and even “lauded” still feel too small to properly illustrate his reputation both in the industry and with audiences. Aside from his ground-breaking work with crime epics like Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, he has also shown himself to be one of the most incredibly versatile filmmakers this side of Steven Soderbergh. Psychological thrillers, philosophical dramas, family films, even blacker-than-pitch comedies like the nuttiness of his last film The Wolf Of Wall Street; the man’s well into his 70’s and he still shows no signs of slowing down. So when someone of this calibre comes out with a film that they have apparently been trying to bring into fruition for literally decades, it’s no wonder that it’s gotten the attention that it has. But is it worth the acclaim it has already garnered? Let’s pretend I’m in a position to comment on such things and find out.

The plot: Portuguese priests Sebastião (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco (Adam Driver) receive word that their mentor Cristóvão (Liam Neeson), after being tortured by Japanese officials, has renounced his faith. The two journey to Japan, during a time when Christians were heavily prosecuted if they didn’t openly deny Jesus, and try to find the true fate of Cristóvão while spreading the gospel to the Japanese Christians in hiding from the authorities. However, as they delve further inland, their motives and treatment of their faith is brought into question.

Among Scorsese’s many recognisable talents is being able to create utter magic on screen with actors that you wouldn’t otherwise assume would work in their respective contexts. I mean, this is the same guy who turned the manic absurdity of Willem Dafoe into one of the best depictions of Jesus ever put to film. Sure enough, that knack is kept true here and it all starts with Neeson. Maybe it’s because of his presence in potboiler action thrillers nowadays, but it seems like people have forgotten just how good Neeson is as an actor, and with how he handles his very tricky dialogue and morality here, I hope this is a reminder that is adhered to. Driver works well as the second stringer, Yōsuke Kubozuka as the film’s Judas analogue does brilliantly as easily the most human (read: realistically flawed) character of the lot and Garfield starts up a streak of insanely good portrayals of devout Christians. Everything good that I said about this guy in Hacksaw Ridge can be applied here and then some.

This film is already off to a good start, as this definitely looks like a film that has been in the works for a good few decades. I mean this in the best way possible as, rather than looking dated and/or behind the times, the attention to period detail is frankly staggering. The way that every scene feels like it has physical texture to it, from the heavy layers of dirt and grime to the bamboo planks underneath them, it gives a lot of grounding to a story that is all about the ethereal and eternal. Add to that some nice Japanese fog that permeates most of the film and the chills-up-the-spine soundtrack courtesy of Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge, who definitely need more work after this, and this is already quite phenomenal. And we haven’t even gotten to the content yet.

While the timing of this release after Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks’ head-long dive into debauchery with Wolf Of Wall Street is likely incidental, the way this film treats the topic of religious piety feels like the sort of story that results from someone spending a very, very long time pondering their own beliefs. It lends credence to Christian doctrine in terms of conversion and expansion, but it also acknowledges the fundamental flaws that exist within that same mindset. Through juxtaposing the Japanese and Portuguese/Christian cultures, we see an inherent reluctance to accept that some things aren’t compatible and, with how much we see as being at stake in the padres’ mission, not worth the suffering to make them happen.

Sebastião almost feels like a deconstruction of the character Garfield portrayed in Hacksaw Ridge, looking at the same level of devotion and unwillingness to shift and daring to ask whose interests are actually being adhered to. Japanese understanding of Christianity as it exists today lends a lot of credence to what we see, as it is treated in much the same way that most Westerners treat ancient philosophies from the Greeks and Egyptians. Aesthetic and artistic cues are often taken, but it is never genuinely treated as an actual philosophy or theology to live by. Or die by, as is seen here. Faith is something far too powerful and resonant for writing down “God Is Dead” to be enough to dampen it, even in the eyes of the Almighty, and that ideal is well and truly at the heart of this film.

With the Christiansploitation bandwagon still trudging along on the backs of studios like PureFlix (you know, the people who gave us these films), Sebastião’s attitudes definitely ring true of something we’re familiar with from recent films. However, unlike most Christian films of today, Scorsese actually highlights this headstrong approach to faith and an unwillingness to accept even a formality of a denouncement as something flawed. Taking it as a representation of those who see their own faith and the spread of said faith as more important than the lives of others, the film manages to depict martyrdom as something hollow and, honestly, rather dangerous. Not that it paints a bad picture of Christianity in the process, though. It’s just that it takes Biblical quotes involving praying in secret and God rewarding thee and shows why those quotes exist in the first place.

The logistics of faith are something rarely touched upon, as religion is much like politics in how difficult it is to separate people from the ideals they hold dear. That said, when dealing with a culture that has a prominent religion that, under a different name, holds many of the same values as your own, maybe conversion isn’t necessary. Maybe those of faith should just take comfort in their own beliefs and what they mean to them, rather than insisting that everyone else believe in precisely the same thing. It’s easy to forget that fundamentalism is present in all schools of thought, from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam to Atheism, and while the presence of an eternal reward can keep people going, it shouldn’t take away the value of mortal existence and what these conflicts can do to it. Namely, that making people see the world the same way you do isn’t worth risking the lives of innocents.

All in all… wow. This is the film that I have long awaited for in terms of religious cinema, managing to fulfill that need far greater than Hacksaw Ridge could ever manage. It asks the right questions and frames them against the right people to highlight the importance and power of one’s own faith, while at the same time showing religiously-influenced arrogance and bias for what it is. Calling this one of Scorsese’s greatest works would underplay how, especially in today’s theological landscape, this is a film that needs to exist. It’s challenging, it’s rewarding, it’s spiritually fulfilling and it almost plays out like a bladed answer to the modern Christiansploitation film scene, taking its more prominent tropes and showing them for what they actually are.


  1. What is the worst/best film you've ever watched?

    1. Best film is a little difficult to pin down. Personally, I think Arrival is the single greatest film I've watched since starting this blog. All-time, I've always had a real attachment to The Breakfast Club.

      Worst film? Far easier. 2015's Vacation was the most painful viewing experience I've ever had with a film, to the point where I think I had a mild emotional breakdown in the process. It broke me in a way that no other film so far has managed.