Stars – Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano
Director – Martin Scorsese
Released by Paramount
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Silence is a personal film. It gets inside you. Set in the eighteen hundreds we follow two extremely dedicated priests who journey from Portugal in search of another priest who has gone missing in Japan. The spread of the Christian faith and the benefits of trading with the Europeans has been exported in a bundle. At this point in Japan Christianity has been outlawed. Practitioners are persecuted, often killed. Those who believe must hide their faith and worship in secret. There is a fearsome man called The Inquisitor who offers pieces of silver for information on any Christians in hiding. He also tortures those he captures until they refute their beliefs. The two priests Rodriguez (Adam Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) convince the powers that be to let them undertake this mission to find their former mentor.
There is much water imagery. In fact one of the most dominant effects on the soundtrack is that of water. Ships sail through it. We hear rain drops and storms. Men are drowned in it amidst the terrifying crashing of waves. When the two priests arrive they are quickly hidden and secreted away by a rag tag group of Christian villagers. They feel so blessed to be able to have these actual trained priests it seems they want to keep them to themselves. They are able to confess their sins and be forgiven. When they first meet these two priests they offer them food. In a very telling scene we see Rodriguez wolf down the food. But the others wait. They want a blessing. Did Rodriquez show us just then that survival was more important than faith? Is that primal need the driving force. We as an audience are asked to consider that. Much of what happens to these men is done in such a way as to invite us to reflect on it. Despite the beautiful photography Silence is very much an internal film. We are continually asked to look within and see how we would handle something and what ramifications that decision would have. There are sections in this film that feature people talking philosophy. These ideals are continually put to the test. Not a test to be graded or learned from but in life and death situations.
There are frequent scenes where people are asked to step on a stone image of Christ or be tortured. Later when Rodriguez is captured he is questioned by the Inquisitor. Again it starts with discussions of philosophy and religion. But soon the Inquisitor puts the priest’s beliefs to the test. He is asked to recant his faith. They call it apostatizing. If he does not apostatize then people will be tortured and killed. The Inquisitor reminds him that these people are dying for your belief. This central conceit is revisited throughout the film. Is one’s faith worth the life of others? Certainly saying mere words to save a life is the right choice. They say that Christ himself would do this. And yet there are those that have given their word who now practice their faith in silence. How can one bear this silence. All these heady themes run through this film like the water we frequently see. It is a very powerful piece. The movie runs two hours and forty minutes. When you watch this film you are asked to look inward, to consider, and to weigh your thoughts. Yes there is a strong story and yes there is an ending but the journey is deeply personal if you allow it in.
The acting is uniformly excellent. If you only know Andrew Garfield from Spiderman and The Social Network you’ll be deeply impressed. Garfield has show himself quite capable of handling difficult dramas before with films like Boy A (2007), Red Riding (2009) and Never Let Me Go (2010). Adam Driver also impresses with how deeply he appears to invest in his character. Liam Neeson who plays the lost priest worked with Scorsese before on The Gangs of New York (2002) interestingly playing a character who was nick named, Priest. Asano Tadanobu who plays a man who is tasked with interpreting the languages for Rodriguez and The Inquisitor. Scorsese mentions in the included featurette that he liked him from when he first saw him in Ichi The Killer (2001).
Watching this film is not an easy task. Scorsese keeps him camera in check here. There are no obvious directorial flourishes. The soundtrack is concerned more with how water sounds than any pop tune that might fit in nicely. He utilizes a technique that is common to a lot of Asian. Films. He allows his actors time to work a scene. We stay still and watch. We sit and listen. We’re not outwardly told all that much. Instead we are asked to consider. If that works for you this is a very powerful experience. I saw it by myself. It feels like a solo journey. A long time ago Harvey Keitel held his hand over a flame in Mean Streets (1983). Why did he do that? Was he showing how strong he was, how determined a man he had become or was he testing his faith. Maybe he was asking something. Martin Scorsese has been asking this question for many years now and Silence just may finally be his answer.
Video – 2.35:1
There are times when a small boat coasts through the water. Mist and fog rise up from the surface. The color looks ethereal. The coastlines cut into the water look bold and beautiful. There is detail in the clothing but the lines in people’s faces stand out much more. This is a very artfully done film. Much of it is breathtaking. But what lurks beneath all that stunning photography is much more captivating.
Audio – English DTS-HD MA 5.1, Spanish Dolby 5.1, French Dolby 5.1
with subtitles offered in English, French, Spanish and English SDH Closed-captioned
The directionality in the mix is very evident in the way that the many sounds of water are presented. We can hear the gentle drops of rain on the soft petals of broad leaves. We can feel the crushing tide blasting in to take the lives of men tied to wooden stakes stuck in the sand. There are the drops of blood slowly dripping from a tiny wound cut into men’s heads as they are tied upside down in a pit. The languages spoken all get plenty of room so we can hear the cadence and feel the meaning even before they are translated for us.
Extras – “Martin Scorsese’s Journey Into Silence” Featurette
This 25 minute piece lets us hear from most everyone connected to the film. Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks share how long it took to get this to the screen. The actors talk about the arduous experience working on the picture.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent