Where do you start to deconstruct a film as intricate and demanding as Martin Scorsese's new project Silence? It's intensely difficult to begin to discuss the film as, for the moment, I have such conflicted views towards it; on one hand, it is an admirable exploration of the importance, and dangers, of faith and religion but in the same breath it is a tiresome, plodding and occasionally boring religious epic in an artistic package. It feels so far from your usual Scorsese release (it physically could not be more different to his previous offering, The Wolf of Wall Street) but it does feature some of the director's distinctive markings, his eye for detail and passion in his work. Below you can see my attempt at summarising my feelings towards Silence in what I hope is a coherent review, although I do ask you to bear with (as I often had to do with the film itself).
In 18th century, when Jesuit priests Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) learn that Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has supposedly committed apostasy after being tortured while spreading catholicism in Japan, they decide to travel from Portugal to locate their missing mentor. Encountering an incredible hostile and dangerous landscape, their attempts to track down their missing mentor relies on the integrity of the people they meet, all of whom have been driven underground in fear of their lives. What lies ahead is a spiritual and physical battle for and against their faith, all contained in Scorsese's 160 minute passion project that has been decades in the making.
Exquisite in its visuals, Silence is one of the most enthralling and absorbing pictures based on aesthetics alone and almost worth the entrance fee to see this beauty on a large screen. Martin Scorsese brings so much poise and detail to the film that it could have been a complete write-off in anybody else's hands. His framing of significant imagery, typically of nature - including a number of aerial shots of the ocean and religious ground - powerfully utilises metaphors to convey many of the film's themes, cleverly playing into a proverb ("mountains and rivers can be moved; but man's nature cannot be moved") spoken towards the end of the film which summarises many of the messages of Silence. Furthermore, Scorsese's use of the titular noun is excellent in evoking emotion from audiences by drawing out a sense of apprehension in some of the film's most intense moments. His masterful direction, clean on the surface displaying a great deal or gore and brutality underneath, is disconcerting and incredibly moving, powering the film through its stretches of nothingness and insignificance. Also deserving a mention is cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who beautifully captures the fog-ladened landscapes - another beautiful example of imagery being used incredible effectively, filling the screen before dissipating almost instantaneously - with a class and grace that makes him one of the finest talents in the industry and a perfect fit for Scorsese.
Andrew Garfield gives a career-best performance here and demonstrates why he is one of the greatest British actors in recent memory. He delivers a nuanced but undeniably powerful performance as Sebastiao Rodrigues, a character based on the real-life Guiseppe Chiara, richly detailed and carefully crafted to avoid lionising the Jesuit priest as some untouchable beacon of hope, while still portraying his humanity as inspiration, particularly when considering what a dark and testing time it is for him and those around him. His composure and strength slowly begins to crumble with the character's eventual wavering faith, with Garfield's performance expertly measured to reflect this with such emotion poured into his portrayal; the things we see through his eyes are truly affecting and it gives just a slight glimpse of the pain he has taken on to his shoulders. Neeson, in a glorified cameo capacity, gives a solid performance here, as does Driver, and although his character does not feel as fleshed out as Garfield's, he still manages to deliver a compelling performance with his fair share of gravitas.
It's impossible to denounce the strength and power of a film like Silence, which is so masterfully made - but a lot of the hard work is completely undone by a narrative that, while important and deserving of your time, runs on and on and on, with no end-point in sight. It is the definition of a slow-burner but it rarely feels as rewarding as it should - on a narrative level at least. Rodrigues' meeting with Ferreira is anti-climatic at best and completely dull at worst, hampered by a loooooong build-up that almost erases any of the cinematic tension because it feels like such a long time coming. With great expanses of nothingness, it feels like we are simply left to ponder in the dreadfulness of the situation, which is both powerful and unnecessary in the same breath, with the latter the slightly more overwhelming emotion. It has a frustrating lack of urgency that really plays against it and I found myself clock-watching as we approached the 'I've been sat in the same seat for three hours now' mark. As much as it is a test of faith for its characters, it can be just as much a test of patient for its audience.
Silence is an admirable piece of film-making that will, for many, demonstrate exactly what Martin Scorsese is at the very top of his field and why Andrew Garfield is one of the strongest actors of his generation. It's consideration of such dark, poignant themes and ideas (namely, the silence of God when people need him the most and the importance and dangers of an unwavering faith and reliance on one figure) is profound and very often moving, which contrasted with the brutality of the torture scenes, works on an effective but very uncomfortable level well. The opening scene, with the calmness of Liam Neeson narration in comparison to the brutality and discomfort of the torture being displayed, sets the film off on a strong footing, with some of the film's best work contained in this sequence. The final image is equally as powerful in its message (holding on to your faith) but a lot of the material in between weakens some of the impact. I completely understand the need for the film's runtime, eking out the journey and telling the story in as much detail as it deserves and I while admire the work and talent of Scorsese, it doesn't mean I have to love it and quite frankly, I didn't. Maybe, like some have suggested, I will look back at this more fondly than just a couple of hours after enduring it, but for the time being the film's biggest weakness is a little too deafening and difficult to overlook.
Summary: Silence undoubtedly features some spell-binding direction, cinematography and symbolism on a visual front, as well as a terrific lead performance from Andrew Garfield - but its extended runtime is its biggest weakness and hinders the impact of the film.
Highlight: Some of the visual imagery and symbolism here is incredibly profound, particularly the opening scene in which the fog spreads across to reveal/hide Neeson when appropriate, and the aerial shots which work so effectively on an emotional level.