Silence review: “Scorsese’s epic proves devastating and overwhelming”

Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson play persecuted missionaries in a sprawling film about faith put to the ultimate test

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★★★

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Nearly 30 years after director Martin Scorsese bought the rights to Shusaku Endo’s renowned 1966 novel, he finally brings it to the big screen.

It’s easy to see why he was fascinated with it, exploring as it does the violent cultural conflicts that accompanied the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan. It also follows a thread of religious soul searching by Scorsese, east to west, going back to The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997).

Giving cinematic expression to the basic paradox of theology (that is, why does God remain silent in the face of horrendous barbarity?), Scorsese examines various notions of faith from different angles within a sprawling, big-canvas epic that is as bleak and unforgiving as the Taiwanese landscapes evocatively used to re-create the period.

The end result is sometimes boring, often slow and a little ponderous. But through the thick and thin parts, an unexpected pay-off proves devastating and overwhelming. Patient viewers will be rewarded with Scorsese’s heartfelt thesis on sacrifice in a conclusion that unearths the truth and beauty at the intersection of Catholicism and Japanese culture.

Two wide-eyed young Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (a totally committed Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), head to Japan to search for their missing teacher and mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neesom, on fearless form), who apparently was forced to renounce his faith, become a Buddhist and take a Japanese wife.

At this time the feudal lords and ruling Samurai were determined to eradicate Christianity, and anyone refusing to apostatise (and turn away from Jesus) faced prolonged torture by scalding hot showers, slow blood-letting and death by crucifixion or drowning. All of this is shown in harrowing detail.

Upon their clandestine arrival, the missionaries stay under cover while ministering to scared Christian villagers forced to worship in secret, but soon word of their presence reaches the ears of Inquisitor Inoue (a superbly shaded Issei Ogata).

Soul-searching epiphanies await Rodrigues while he endures crises of conscience and becomes ground down with knowing what will happen to his adoring flock if he doesn’t recant. None of it is pretty but many will be profoundly moved by Scorsese’s single-minded approach to human frailty, defined by doubt and fear.

The Japanese authorities are scared to death of Christianity while the missionaries are faced with a cruel dichotomy, promising paradise as their congregation is brutally wiped out. These are story’s central themes and Scorsese properly fleshes out their dramatic potential. Not in a flashy style, either.

Although beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, this is a classically styled vision where the slow-burning drama is gradually illuminated along with deeper existential concerns.

Silence would benefit from being shorter than its 161 minutes and it does become a tad repetitious, but Scorsese is clearly unloading his psyche in a very entrenched, passionate and specific way. For those plagued by the same questions about faith, it could be just as impactful. 

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Silence is in cinemas from 1 January 2017


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