It should be a surprise to approximately zero people that Martin Scorsese was once a candidate for priesthood. Despite being a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic,” Scorsese is one of the most religious directors working today (if you don’t count hacks who perpetuate the Pure Flix brand). His obsession with the spiritual realm makes its way into practically everything he does, whether it’s the text (The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence) or the deep subtext (Janet’s Passion of Joan of Arc-esque head shaving in The Wolf of Wall Street). This is a director with a lot on his mind when it comes to religion, so it’s disappointing for me to report that Silence just doesn’t get his message across in all that compelling of a way.
Jesuit priests Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver) are dispatched into Japan to find and rescue their long-lost mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who went missing seven years prior during a mission to the mostly Buddhist country. It’s the 1660s and Christianity has yet to make the inroads it eventually will, so the two men face extreme discrimination and punishment for practicing their beliefs in the rural villages where they are conducting their search. The few Japanese individuals brave enough to demonstrate their faith openly are roundly punished for their defiance, frequently by way of brutal torture that is designed to last for days on end. Although Rodrigues and Garrupe seek to spread peace throughout the world, their mere presence is lethal to those with whom they come in contact.
If Scorsese were a less nuanced filmmaker, it’d be tempting to look at Silence as another example in an increasingly long line of films preaching to the choir about how tough it is to be openly Christian in the face of constant persecution. The main difference, of course, is that Silence is not set in contemporary society, so it’s easier to take a longer view of it as being thematically oriented to religious persecution in general, as opposed to specifically Christian persecution. Through this lens, Silence is far more valuable as a work of art. It’s clear-eyed and brutal take on the people’s brutality towards one another in the name of discrimination rings truer than ever in a society in which Black Lives Matter exists, even though the white, Christian recipients of the punishment in the film are aligned with those in power today (not counting the Japanese Christians whose lives are destroyed in the film).
The problem with Silence is that its reach extends beyond its grasp, starting with the film’s extreme overlength. At 161 minutes, Scorsese has shown once again the value of having a producer who is willing to tell a filmmaker “No.” Working with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, Silence excels in telling its story on visual terms, contrasting the misty, foreboding landscape with the hopeful ambitions of its characters. But they allow individual scenes to go on for far too long, stretching into repetition until their original meaning is lost. Neither Scorsese’s script (co-written by Jay Cocks) nor the performances can save the film’s many scenes from becoming straight-up boring after they continue past their expiration date. The director has never been one to cut a short movie when a longer version will do, but that hasn’t been a problem up until now. It’s too far to say that the emperor has no clothes, but his outfit is definitely skimpier than he realizes.
A note on those performances: Driver and Neeson are more or less wasted in this film, which focuses almost entirely on Garfield, an actor who has been shown to carry a film in the past but is perhaps out of his depth here. He has compelling chemistry with Driver, who does good work when given screen time but disappears for a long stretch of film only to return for several minutes before vanishing completely. And it’s no secret as to why Neeson isn’t seen too much in the movie, but when he does show up, he is simply going through the motions asked of him as a sage, older man. Another issue with the three actors is that none of them agreed on the best accent to perform. Garfield’s approximates Portuguese, whereas Driver edges on Irish and Neeson is doing his same-old mid-Atlantic-sort-of-British routine he always falls back on.
This discrepancy between the actors is a detail that is emblematic of the film as a whole. There doesn’t seem to have been solid direction as to the point of the whole affair, other than to illustrate how bad discrimination is. We know that torturing people for their beliefs is unacceptable, but Scorsese doesn’t illuminate anything beyond this grim fact. And the necessity of subjecting us to such a shallow exploration for over two and a half hours is lost on me as well. When Scorsese is passionate about a project, his ambitions can tend to get away from him, as in the case of The Aviator, an interminably long movie that is technically masterful and wonderfully performed, but similarly lacks an overarching idea. By the time we come to the end of this miserable affair, the only takeaway we seem to have is to keep our religion to ourselves, a sentiment with which I would tend to agree. But if Scorsese needed to give us Silence in order to get to that conclusion, he needs to be reined in.