If I were ever asked to nominate somebody as ‘Greatest Living Film Director,’ Martin Scorcese would be a serious contender for the title. He has an exceptionally strong and eclectic body of work, which includes bona fide masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Good Fellas –and even occasional misfires like The Last Temptation of Christ are never less than interesting. Silence is a film he’s been trying to make for something like thirty years. Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo and co-written by Scorcese with his old collaborator, Jay Cocks, it’s essentially a meditation on the power of belief – and the lengths to which people will go to in order to observe their chosen religion.
In seventeenth century Portugal, two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), set themselves a difficult mission – to travel to Japan in search of their old tutor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared whilst trying to convert the locals to Christianity. Rumour has come back that Ferreira has ‘apostatised’ – renounced his faith – and is now living the life of a Buddhist under the watchful gaze of his captors. The young priests refuse to believe that this can be the case and they set off on the perilous journey to Japan, knowing that from the minute they arrive they will be in grave danger. Christians are hated there and are cruelly tortured and executed in large numbers. But that’s not to say that the film is necessarily pro (or anti) Christian; indeed, questions are raised about the very nature of missionary work, and the religious zeal that prompts people to try to force others to accept their ‘truth’.
Silence is a powerful slow-burner of a film, that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It takes a while to unfold an intriguing story and with a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, it will undoubtedly test the patience of many; but there’s a great deal here to enjoy – the ravishing cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, Dante Feretti’s costume design and a superb central performance by Andrew Garfield, clearly delivering on a role that’s a bit of a stretch from his earlier turn as Spiderman. Liam Neeson, now the go-to guy for any performance requiring gravitas, delivers his cameo role with aplomb and I particularly like Yosuke Kubozuka as the Jesuit’s guide, Kichijiro, a would-be Christian who continually betrays his chosen faith only to come scrabbling back seeking forgiveness through the act of confession.
There are also some scenes of terrible violence here; the unflinching depictions of the barbaric treatment meted out to those who refuse to renounce their faith are not for the faint-hearted. People are burned alive, crucified and drowned all in the name of religion.
As to the film’s central tenet – is there a God? – Scorcese (who himself trained as a priest before deciding to seek his absolution through celluloid) is wise enough to resist offering a definitive answer. In the end, it is left to the individual viewer to decide. But I would urge you to go and see this film. It may have taken a very long time to bring it to the screen, but in my opinion at least, it has been well worth the wait.