Martin Scorsese is no stranger to making films about history and religion.
Kundun, his 1997 biographical epic about the Dalai Lama, (written by E.T.’s Melissa Mathison) was nominated for four Academy Awards yet performed poorly at the box office.
Ten years earlier, he helmed The Last Temptation of Christ resulting in Scorsese’s second nomination for an Academy Award for Best Director, but that film was also a commercial disappointment.
It was at the time of Temptation’s release, in 1988, that he was introduced to the novel Silence, a 1966 novel of historical fiction by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō which tells the story of a Jesuit missionary Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who was sent to 17th century Japan, enduring persecution in the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) that followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion.
Almost three decades on, Scorsese has finally delivered his film version of Silence, starring Andrew Garfield as Sebastião Rodrigues (based on Giuseppe Chiara) and Adam Driver as Francisco Garupe, two young priests who convince a superior to let them go in search of their mentor Ferreira, thus embarking on a perilous expedition to Japan to seek the truth.
The film got out of the gates awkwardly for me as I struggled to believe either Driver or Garfield in their hefty roles as Men of God. But once they arrived at a remote island location and are forced to live in secrecy, only practicing their religion in the dead of night, do they both seem perfectly suited to these roles of devout Christians.
Above – Yōsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro – an alcoholic fisherman who fled Japan (later revealed to be a Christian who renounced his faith to save himself.
Silence is a long film – over two and half hours, and a lot of it is slow going.
However, the subject matter is so clearly a topic close to the director’s heart that you know he wants to make an impact, and I never felt that the story was not going somewhere.
The “Padres”, as the locals call them, baptize willing Christians, hear confession and preach the faith, spreading the gospel from village to village in a clandestine fashion, while the authorities offer generous rewards for information leading to their capture.
Garfield has been a revelation in both this film and Hacksaw Ridge, as there is something transcendental about his performance as holy men, and his nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Desmond T. Doss is most certainly warranted.
He delivers an exceptional performance in Silence as his character wrestles with his faith and his decisions about how best to implement it.
When Rodrigues and Ferreira finally meet, the encounter provides further anguish for the young priest and events take an unexpected and dramatic turn.
When I came home from the film I had to look up Christianity in Japan and Buddhism in Japan to get a sense of the period the film is set in. And man that is some heavy reading!
Due to the serious religious themes and long running time, this is not a film for everyone. Scorsese is just as capable of serving up crowd pleasers amongst his more esoteric material and this film is definitely one of the latter entries.
Silence has received just one Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for the brilliant camerawork of Rodrigo Prieto (Passengers, Argo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Brokeback Mountain) but seems to have slipped between the cracks once again as far as Scorsese is concerned, resulting in a inadequate reward for the effort injected into this project.
According to this Hollywood Reporter article, quoting producer Irwin Winkler “all the actors, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, everybody worked for scale. Marty worked for scale, I worked for under scale. We gave back money.”
It is quite possible Martin Scorsese made this film for reasons beyond the commercial realm, as he has grappled with his Roman Catholic upbringing his entire life. I hope for his sake he was able to answer some of the questions that he says have haunted him for many years.
A passion project over 27 years in the making, Silence is an extraordinary and exquisite exploration of faith.
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