Silence Review

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The conclusion of Scorsese's religious 'trilogy' is good but far from great

by Casimir Harlow Jan 2, 2017 at 6:53 PM

  • Movies review


    Silence Review

    Scorsese's quarter-century-in-the-making passion project Silence is ultimately and disappointingly another unnecessary remake.

    Twenty seven years on, and the latest generation of fans of Scorsese's films may not really remember his 1990 masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, let alone his flawed 1997 religious follow-up, Kundun, so it's hard to put Silence into context as either a conclusion to his unofficial religious trilogy, or a film which has been in the making ever since The Last Temptation of Christ. Indeed uttering the name in the same breath as his 1990 gem immediately raises expectations to an almost impossible level. Unfortunately Scorsese's adaptation of Shusaku Endo's acclaimed novel and de facto remake of the 1971 Japanese adaptation of the same, feels nothing like the masterpiece that you would have expected from the filmmaker having been working on this project so long. And, indeed, a more cynical view would be that he'd run out of time to make it - having delayed production over half a dozen time, lost his initial stars, and even been sued by the production company for failure to deliver the film.
    This may not be the Silence that he wanted us to see; an already abridged version of the rumoured three hour first cut, with longtime editing collaborator Thelma Shoonmaker on far from fine form; a complete lack of score; pacing issues; and ultimately a story which adds very little to the 1971 classic first adaptation. Worse still, rather than considered, Scorsese's approach to the material is confused - flitting between observations on faith and religious fidelity; and on the suffering of the self and others 'in the name of God', and ultimately struggling to countenance its contradictions or coalesce into a substantive piece. Nevertheless there are some tremendous performances that Scorsese has once again elicited from the least expected corners - with Andrew Garfield on impressive form and Adam Driver in fierce support - hints of the auteur's trademark flourishes in long, wide, panning, and spinning shots; and a bevvy of interesting questions posed by the material which offer contemplation long after the credits roll.

    The story follows two 19th century Jesuit priests who go on a mission to Japan to find their mentor, a great priest who disappeared in the wake of the Shogunate massacre of Japanese Catholics during the preceding years, and who is rumoured to have apostasised and become integrated with the Japanese.

    Indeed, notwithstanding the original adaptations relatively straightforward interpretation of the source work, there was room here for Scorsese to turn this into his religious Apocalypse Now, as the priests suffer repeated tests of their faith on their treacherous voyage to find their reportedly fallen colleague, or for Scorsese to follow a more mythical The Last Temptation of Christ style which would embolden the work with a fierce passion that was, again, distinctly lacking in the first interpretation of the novel. Unfortunately - and, again, there's a question as to whether this is as a result of studio pressure to deliver the movie promptly after 23 years of delays - Scorsese's vision of the text is actually, substantively, little different from the 1971 film, with a considered but ultimately meandering narrative that neither feels epic in scope nor incisive in terms of personal introspection.

    In the decades that it took for Silence to finally get in front of the cameras, Scorsese lost his first choices for the cast - including Daniel Day Lewis (presumably in Neeson's role) and Benicio del Toro (presumably in Garfield's role) - and, again, once can't help but wonder what film that would have been, but the positive flipside is that Garfield is a revelation under Scorsese's tutelage. The filmmaker has mentored a young De Niro and a young Di Caprio, refining their talents into master players themselves, and he's worked similar wonders with Garfield - albeit still in the infancy of becoming an impressive actor - which will hopefully be present in Mel Gibson's imminent Hacksaw Ridge too. Garfield - visually reminiscent of Dafoe's The Last Temptation of Christ look - very visibly weathers the horrors in this film, both internally and externally, and it's a testament to his strengths that the most poignant moments often come from the quieter, more contemplative scenes of internal struggle than the more overt depictions of torture.

    It's an accomplished filmmaker doing a good job, when we have come to expect great from him

    Adam Driver brings fierce passion to his role as the companion priest, striking out from any potential Kylo Ren pigeon hole to offer an intriguing, and equally flawed, counterpoint to Garfield's more pragmatic priest. Neeson, whose depiction on the poster even harks back to Brando's depiction on the posters to Apocalypse Now, commits to a suitably painful prologue, but doesn't quite get enough meat (at least in this cut) to feel like a fully rounded character, with the lopsided runtime drawing out the prelude and ultimately interstitial middle act and cramming too much into an abortive, even possibly anticlimactic finale, very much at the expense of his contributions.

    Japanese actors Tadanobu Asano (47 Ronin, Thor) and comic Issey Ogata, who brings a quirky menace to his role as the inquisitor commissioned to weed out the Christian 'threat', also further enrich and add to the authenticity of the material, although, despite the great lengths to maintain vast swathes of Japanese dialogue, it's hard to countenance Scorsese's seeming ambivalence towards portraying his English-speaking cast (complete with myriad, often faltering, accents) as Portuguese priests who - in terms of the actual narrative - are actually supposed to be interacting with others in Portuguese (one wonders whether even a Hunt for Red October-esque moment of initial language-shifting would have made this gel better).

    Despite some impressive vistas, and a gleeful embrace of almost perpetual fog, as well as a few 'classic' Scorsese shots - overhead down the steps at the beginning; panning sideways along the bars of one of the 'prisons'; and sweeping back and forth swiftly between characters at opposing sides of the room - Silence doesn't feel as grand or Scorsese-like as it really should have been, and it's actually distinctly lacking on the score front (even Scorsese's initial drop to absolute silence during the title sequence feels cliched, and his adherence to natural sounds almost throughout deprives the film of the momentum that a decent score may have elicited).

    It's an accomplished filmmaker doing a good job, with some great performances, and that alone leaves it worth seeing. And to add to that it covers a very interesting subject wrought with contemplation and controversy - from the analogous sub-arc highlighting the flaws but also the mission statement in the Catholic confessional, to the posed questions over sacrifice and faith versus needless suffering, to the very arrogant notion of imposing 'The Truth' in terms of a foreign set of beliefs in a country which already has its own. But from Scorsese, we expect more. We expect great. And this isn't it.

    The Rundown

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