Running time 2hr 41mins
THERE is much silence in Silence – the enigmatic calm of Liam Neeson’s ‘lost priest’, the impenetrable Asian scrubland, the near-total lack of a soundtrack and, of course, the eternal riddle that is God, silent in the face of the suffering of his children. Martin Scorsese has spent decades trying to carry this story to the big screen, and, naturally, the film does not spare us any of the difficulty. Be warned, this is a trying watch at the best of times, with a screenplay of the most literary order, and there’s no guarantee the cinemagoer will take anything at all away from it.
This is not entertainment, as such, but a drama in the strictest sense, languishing in the courtyards and prison-cells of feudal Japan; the dialogue, quite to the point, is agonising, an endless torrent of doubts and sensations only giving way, between hushed, theology-steeped exchanges, to a persistent grimness. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no final-reel redemption, and our protagonists, a pair of naïve young missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), are slowly beginning to realise. The two have been dispatched to 17th-century Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Neeson), a once-pious man said to have renounced Christianity amid the country’s hideous persecutions.
Garfield’s centrality within the film has received flak, but his boyish, tragic priest is simply spellbinding, slowly losing his poise, his innocence and (maybe) his mind as tortures, both literal and metaphorical, take their toll. The grab-bag of horrors here, while foul and miserable, are by no means anything above Scorsese’s usual fare – as in The Last Temptation of Christ, the movie’s most singularly unbearable sequences are psychological in nature, as Issey Ogata’s sadistic inquisitor breaks his ‘guest’ down. At times, it’s as much the foreignness of his surroundings gnawing away at Garfield’s soul as the explosions of gruesome violence, and the Japanese cast, including a treacherous peasant (Yosuke Kubozuka), are wonderful to this effect, perfectly balancing their sheer outlandishness with a terrible fragility.
So, what’s the hitch? In truth, it’s not hard to see why the project’s been doing the rounds in Hollywood for so long – the source material, Shusaku Endo’s devastating novel of 1966, is about the closest thing to a genuinely unfilmable volume, more a meditation on the pitfalls of faith and idealism than a conventional narrative. Indeed, Silence may well go down as one of the last great ‘director’ movies – only a filmmaker of Scorsese’s standing could ever have negotiated such a personal piece through the trials and tribulations of the modern studio, and the industry is rapidly retiring his generation of visionaries.
Put simply, Silence is, too often for comfort, a slog; large sections simply do not work, and many of the key themes cannot be conveyed adequately by the medium of cinema. While it bleeds passion and atmosphere, the results are frequently blunt and paltry – Liam Neeson’s contribution is, most shockingly, wafer-thin, too shallow to rejuvenate the production in the way it might otherwise have (after a brief introduction in the first act, we spend nearly three hours awaiting his reappearance). It’s one thing to go against the current, to demand patience and contemplation from viewers in the age of the blockbuster, but Scorsese is not on form here, the subject matter translated inconsistently onto the big screen, and there’s real monotony abound. It’s hard not to admire Silence for all the sweat and energy clearly invested in it, but it’s a film that few will love – bleak, beautiful and, ultimately, tedious.