Wednesday 21 December 2016


Speaking generously about his pal Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg once said: "My movies are whispers; Marty's movies are shouts". Ironically though, Marty's latest shout is titled Silence, and the fact that it's a quiet meditation on deeply personal, generally internalised emotional processes does kind of bugger up The Berg's metaphor. That said, and fully aware that I may be extending this tenuous linguistic connection to unnecessary lengths, Silence does have an awful lot to say about a subject that has echoed loudly throughout history, and shows little sign of decreasing in volume any time soon. OK I'll stop this now.

It's 1640 (the year, not the time), and respected Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, making good use of his old Jedi robes) has done a bunk from his business of promoting Catholicism in Japan. Nobody knows what's happened to him, but rumours that he's gone native and apostatised - i.e. renounced Christianity, as Ciarán Hinds helpfully clarifies in an early scene - are causing consternation back in his Portuguese church: Christians in Japan were suffering appalling persecution from the shogunate at the time, with priests and followers tortured and murdered for their beliefs. And so it is that two young, naïve priests, played by Andrew Garfield's enormous hair and Adam Driver's unfathomably peculiar face, set off to find Ferreira like two Martin Sheens on the hunt for a shaggy-haired Marlon Brando. Why Scorsese didn't just call it 'Apostatise Now' remains unclear.

Silence focuses on the journey of Garfield's Father Rodrigues, which you will be unsurprised to hear is more than just a geographical one. Rodrigues and Driver's Father Garrpe are strong of faith, but it's an untested, almost blind faith based on years of teachings, and their mission to locate Ferreira will see it interrogated, abused and turned against them until somebody, or something, breaks. The deeper Rodrigues strays into anti-Christian territory, the more vicious the assault on his faith: it begins insidiously, with a Gollumesque guide who may or may not be entirely trustworthy, and ends nearly three hours later with a final shot that exquisitely balances the weight of everything that's come to pass.

Along the way, Scorsese steadfastly refuses to employ any of his trademark visual whizzpoppery or breakneck editing; there are a couple of dramatic, high angle, God's POV shots sprinkled throughout, but stylistically this is as far removed from The Wolf Of Wall Street as Kundun was from the preceding Casino. That Scorsese can still surprise you with these gear changes at 74 years old is just one reason why it's a privilege to be alive while he's making movies. As expected, Silence is an utter joy to look at too: the Japanese scenery is mysterious, timeless and decidedly Kurosawan (despite being shot in Taiwan), while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto studies the creases in the Japanese cast's faces in conspiratorial close-up.

Thematically, and for obvious reasons, Silence hews closer to Kundun and The Last Temptation Of Christ before it than Scorsese's more popular fare. But there are shared elements to be found in unlikely places: informants, inquisitors and a woozy sense of paranoia are common to both this and GoodFellas, for example, and Rodrigues' spiritual sense of belonging to a flawed collective that gives his life meaning isn't a million miles away from Henry Hill's calling to the mob. There isn't a single scene in which you doubt that as far back as Rodrigues can remember, he always wanted to be a minister.
But it's the thorough probing of faith, undertaken with relentless intensity by Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks in their adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel, that truly hits home. The wisdom of faith, the forms it takes (both physical and spiritual), its potentially catastrophic power, the arrogance it breeds and the eternal struggle between faith and doubt that defines humanity all come under the microscope here. Even I, a committed heathen, learned more about faith from Silence's 159 minutes than three years of mad Mrs Baker's R.E. class, which will no doubt please notable failed priest Martin Scorsese.

Silence is a film of serene power, and should be approached accordingly. It's long, it's talky and it's light on heavy drug use and face-pulping violence, but crucially it's never dull. Its zen-like atmosphere belies its tortuous production history, but it's a thing of great beauty to behold, and if you ever doubted that Martin Scorsese would pull off something so good at this late stage in his career, then shame on you. You should have more faith.

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