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Movie Review: #Silence

Two Jesuit priests seek to find their mentor who has disappeared in hostile 17th Century Japan.

Review by Matt Cummings

It can be argued that Director Martin Scorsese has earned the right to make whatever film he wants. His filmography reads like a mini-AFI list. Unfortunately, his 25-year long passion project Silence emerges as an over-wrought, frustrating, and frankly arrogant middle finger while even eroding its own message with logic that makes all the sense to someone who long abandoned his faith.

After the Portguese first arrived on the Japanese mainland in the mid 16th Century, the leader Tokugawa Ieyasu responded by waging a protectionist holy war against priests and their followers. Widespread evictions and persecutions of Japanese Christians are witnessed by the helpless Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whose plight stirs the conscience of the kind Jesuit Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield). Together with his fellow Jesuit Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), Ferreria's former students set out on a harrowing journey into the heart of a hostile Japan, unprepared for what they are to experience. Bolstered by their faith, the two will endure unimaginable hardships and see their very reason for living challenged at every turn, all while their captors turn to unlikely allies to break the duo's will and the Christian influence they are trying to spread.

Silence is a gorgeous film to witness. The Japanese brittle and battered coastline comes alive via Cinematographer Rodrigo Pietro's lens, providing the only respite for a film that relishes in how long it takes to tell its story. At 161 minutes, it's entirely too long, sapping its own energy with the at once brilliantly-executed debates between Rodrigues and his Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) and the ridiculous Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) who keeps begging Rodrigues for absolution, only to betray him time and time again. It becomes a joke as the character re-appears with little to no reason for committing his sins. Sure, we learn that his family was murdered in front of him after Kichijiro is forced to step on an image of Christ, but his ultimate MO seems only to offer comic relief and not a satisfying character arc.

Based on its name, Silence also offers a window into the frustration many people like myself share about our former faith: god doesn't answer our prayers directly, nor does he or other spirits communicate with us. For literally a dozen scenes throughout, Rodrigues is forced to witness the torture and execution of his followers, all without God stepping in vanquish these Japanese sadists. And when it comes time for him to be tested at the image of Jesus, the reveal here is so unbelievable that it comes off as a plot device rather than a moment of clarity or release.

Silence does wonderfully address the arrogance of Christian dogma in several key scenes; but again, it cuts its own weight from underneath itself with two reveals that include the final scene. I've heard some critics state that this is Scorsese's own personal battles with the faith manifest on screen. Whatever the answer, I think it's an awful way to make a film. Scorsese focuses only mere moments on Kichijiro, The Interpreter, and The Inquisitor (a strange Issei Ogata). The trio provide some of the film's best performances, but they don't appear until the third act, dominated instead by white European actors who hem and haw their way through a diminishing spiritual desert.

I'm not sure Neeson was the right fit for Silence, nor was the shortened performance of Driver. His tough facial features makes him hard to watch, but apparently Scorsese never watched The Phantom Menace, because I couldn't get over Neeson in Japanese robes. All I could think was that a Jedi had sent Spider-man and Kylo Wren on a fool's errand of mercy. Add 161 minutes to the mix, and you get something that at its best is indulgent to the faithful and those on the fence with their faith. At its worst, it reduces the Japanese to sadistic monsters who fail to see the beauty of a religion that is in direct conflict to all others. I didn't think that was the point of religion.

Catholics are sure to be offended by much of Silence's quite accurate arguments against their religion. I was just bored for long stretches, proving that even incredible filmmakers can disappoint when their passion projects get lost at sea. Pick this up only as a streaming rental, and only if you're OK with its unnecessarily long runtime and frustrating means by which it tries to save Japan from itself. Such arrogance is why I bowed out of my faith, and why you might want to skip this one altogether.

Silence is rated R for some disturbing violent content and has a runtime of 161 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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