A beautiful tribute to the meditative and cynically spiritual films that inspired him, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is equal parts Bergman and Mizoguchi. It also serves as a spiritual companion to his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. It is slow and methodical in a way that his films often aren’t, but it succeeds in creating a sense of desperation and futility that is almost gluttonous as you sit in the audience eating popcorn and watching the characters hunt for food, water, and acceptance.
Scorsese has made no secret of his admiration for world cinema. His Japanese influences are well documented, and the direct impact of those filmmakers on Silence may be unjustly overshadowed because its protagonists are Portuguese and its themes are Biblical. A scene early in the movie portrays the protagonists in small boats sailing across a fog covered sea. The cinematography in this scene directly recalls Mizoguchi’s classic film Ugetsu, a film which Scorsese has listed among his favorites on a number of occasions. Beyond that scene, Silence is packed with homage to classic Japanese cinema. A violent beheading in the film is reminiscent of many early samurai films, especially Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub series. When the protagonist, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), faces trial, the framing is almost identical to the framing of the characters in Kobayashi’s crowning masterpiece, Harakiri. It could even be argued that the film’s biggest tragic but comedic character, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), pays tribute to Toshiro Mifune’s classic character Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai. The pair physically resemble each other, have similar sounding names, similar tragic backgrounds, and similar character types.
The plot of Silence revolves around Rodrigues and, to a lesser extent, Garrpe (Adam Driver). They are two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan to attempt to retrieve their teacher, Ferreira (Liam Neeson). However, Christianity was illegal in Japan at the time. Thus their faith is tested repeatedly throughout the film. It is tested sometimes through their own physical suffering, but usually by forcing them to watch their followers (Japanese Christians who worship in private) tortured into apostatizing. The two separate partway into the film, and the majority follows Rodrigues through his journey.
Much as Rodrigues suffers watching what the Japanese Christians are put through, the audience is meant to suffer watching their long and torturous pain. Some scenes are not easy to stomach, and most are very draining, but this is a success on Scorsese’s part as it creates total immersion. Garfield’s performance is believable despite being outside of the actor’s usual wheelhouse. His character development throughout the film feels very well earned as the brutal world he occupies continues to test him.
Where the majority of Silence is beautifully constructed, visually and spiritually meditative, and paced such that the film’s long run time passes rather quickly, the end leaves something to be desired. The decision to switch the narration to a new and relatively unimportant character in the final minutes of the film is questionable, and the final seconds sacrifice the moral ambiguity of the film’s body. The final twenty minutes or so simply feel out of place.
That said, Silence is an excellent effort from one of the greatest directors of our time. Following The Wolf of Wall Street which was a somewhat empty success, well constructed but overly similar to Goodfellas and Casino, Silence is a wholly original and unique project for Scorsese. Though it shares some qualities with The Last Temptation of Christ, these elements are more thematic, while the film has its own stylistic voice. One gets the sense that this was a very personal undertaking for Scorsese, and his passion shines throughout the movie.